Shortly after I moved to the DC area I joined the DC chapter of the Forever Young Adult book club (DC FYA for short)(I may have mentioned this fact beShortly after I moved to the DC area I joined the DC chapter of the Forever Young Adult book club (DC FYA for short)(I may have mentioned this fact before?). The girls from book club have become good friends, and they are really sweet about the fact that I often show up without having read the book (or when I skip a meeting, like yesterday! Eek!) I trust them for recommendations. Melissa-from-book-club insisted that I would like Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, and I knew she was probably right. I wasn’t in the mood to read it at the time, so I sat on the recommendation for a few months. Then on my flight home from France I saw it on my Kindle app and thought, “Yeah, I’ll try that.” Seven hours of travel later, I was almost home and exhausted, but with that happy I-just-finished-a-fun-book feeling.
Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, a “Chosen One” with a temper, and his final year at a magical school. If that sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things. Simon was originally introduced to readers through fan fiction about a fictional book within another of Rowell’s books (Fangirl), and it was meant to be a Harry Potter-esque story. If that last sentence didn’t make sense to you, it’s fine: You don’t need to have read anything previously to ‘get’ Simon’s story. It’ll feel familiar no matter what because it is a loving send-up of some of fantasy’s well-worn tropes.
As mentioned above, Simon is back at his magical boarding school for his final year. He expects life as normal (or as normal as his life gets): foiling his roommate Baz’s evil plots, proving that his roommate Baz is a vampire, and figuring out what the next threat to his life from the Big Bad in his world will be. Then Baz has to go and spoil it by not showing up (the nerve!). Life goes on, but Simon just can’t let Baz’s mysterious disappearance go. Add in ghosts, not-dealing with his girlfriend-who-probably-cheated-on-him-with-Baz, and magical deadspots of increasing size, and you have a recipe for angst and apocalypse.
So those are the bare bones of the plot. What’s the book like? It’s delightful and yet predictable. How does that work? Good points: it’s well-written, it’s funny, it’s meta, and it’s told from multiple perspectives, which adds a thin slice of mystery to some events which might otherwise be completely unsurprising. As I said, though, it’s not particularly surprising or groundbreaking, though now that I write that I don’t think I can name a young adult fantasy novel with gay boys and a happy ending. So maybe it IS groundbreaking?! Let me know in the comments if you can name a title I’ve overlooked. When I say it’s predictable, I mean that I knew what was coming around every corner before it arrived, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy it.
Things that I thought were particularly well done: characters with varying levels of self-awareness and intelligence (instead of a cast entirely made up of self-possessed/talented teens – it was a welcome change), LGBTQ love story (I don’t think that’s a spoiler – you can see it coming a mile away!), female characters of various ages and awesome, family foibles, and diversity (in fantasy!). Rowell is also very talented at writing banter and dialogue in general – you hear the different voices of the narrators loud and clear.
This is a parody of popular fantasy, so the magic is exceedingly silly, but the author did enough worldbuilding that it worked. At least, it did if you imagined Rowell sharing the joke with you. She didn’t take herself too seriously, and that light-hearted feel contrasted nicely with the world-ending stakes.
In all, Carry On is a fun and funny diverse read that’s perfect for turning off the real world for a bit and enjoying a trope-tastic magical alternative.
Recommended for: fans of Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy series, Gina D’Amico’s Croak (and fantasy in general), and anyone who appreciates good dialogue and a sarcastic narrator....more
Here’s where I am with baking: it started as therapy, then it was a creative outlet, then it became part of “who Cecelia is (especially at parties).”Here’s where I am with baking: it started as therapy, then it was a creative outlet, then it became part of “who Cecelia is (especially at parties).” Now I my goal is to find new, exciting, unfamiliar things to make – basically, to challenge myself. And as much as I love getting recommendations from friends or seeing what the New York Times cooking section has on offer, the recipes rarely surprise me. So it’s a good thing that I won an Abrams Instagram contest and a handful of new-to-me cookbooks. Yvette van Boven’s Home Baked has been surprising me since January, and it has been the jump-start I needed to get out of my baking comfort zone.
Talented cook, artist, and food stylist Yvette van Boven tackles home baking in a gorgeously–conceived and –executed cookbook. Van Boven introduces a range of Irish, Dutch and French recipes (and some that are a mix or none of those three!) under the headings of Viennoiserie (breakfast pastries), Bread, Pound Cake, Bars and Slices, Cookies, Pie, Birthday Cakes, Pâtisserie and “Do Not Forget the Dog,” aka recipes for canine companions.
Home Baked provides a fresh take on baking inspired by van Boven’s personal preferences, changes to diet, and special occasions, all with a homey feel (and most importantly, reproducible by the home baker!). Some of the European-influenced recipes may be familiar to North American bakers, but van Boven includes detail about why certain ingredients are included that was new to this reader. In addition, all of the recipes are labeled if they are wheat-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free or refined sugars-free, which is very useful for anyone dealing with dietary restrictions.
The overall presentation of this cookbook is one of its best features (what, you thought it was just a book of recipes?!). Along with gorgeous photos of the food, its pages are filled with watercolor-washed backgrounds, lovely full-page spreads of photographs of Irish and French landscapes, and hand-inked recipe illustrations. It’s a cookbook that can double as a coffee table art book (and I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of a cookbook that way before!).
Now that I’ve done the official “review” things, I can give you my honest feedback on the book, right? Well, it’s great. I found it both an inspiration and a bit of a learning experience. Van Boven makes all of her recipes in a convection oven, and the majority of the goodies don’t call for expensive kitchenware. I used more eggs and lemon zest in baking than ever before, experimented with oven times, substituted ingredients, and liked the results. Who knew? I thoroughly tested (read: enjoyed) the cookbook by baking that gorgeous cake on the cover (Super-Light Lemon Poppy Seed Cake), the Cherry Cream Pie with Raspberry-Campari Sauce, the Far Breton Aux Pruneaux, and two kinds of cookies. All of the recipes turned out well and won major kudos from friends.
One minor nit: I found a couple of recipes that either had ingredients or amounts transposed or misspelled, or that were missing bit of the recipe. For a book so beautiful, it’s a shame that they didn’t do just one more copyedit.
In the preface, Yvette van Boven writes that “Baking will not only make you very happy; it will make you beloved.” Home Baked is a homey, accessible homage to baking, a breath of fresh air, and its recipes prove the author right.
Recommended for: home bakers who want to round out their baking game with European-inspired delicacies, and anyone who can appreciate a beautifully constructed book....more
It’s Inauguration Day here in Washington, DC. I have the day off of work because I live a couple of streets away from Arlington National Cemetery andIt’s Inauguration Day here in Washington, DC. I have the day off of work because I live a couple of streets away from Arlington National Cemetery and my office is on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s still a Friday, but the library is closed and I don’t want to turn on the TV. I do want to do something constructive – something that will make a difference and build up my spirits. So, I’m reviewing a book by a local author – by a Spanish-speaking immigrant, even. I want to share with you a book that is adorable, smart, different, and immensely readable. Let’s talk about Juana Medina’s Juana & Lucas.
Juana is a rambunctious girl who lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her mother and her dog Lucas. Juana loves many things – her abuelos (grandparents), art, her best friend at school, her city (and of course her Mami and Lucas!)… but she does not love learning English. It’s difficult, it’s boring, and she wonders what the point is. When her grandfather tells her that the family will visit Florida, everything changes. Juana MUST learn English!
Juana & Lucas is an illustrated chapter book with a lot of heart. Juana has the same sort of thoughts and worries and dreams as any kid – she’s relatable, and she’s smart and fun. While Juana is hilariously lamenting how boring English is, she drops many little tidbits about life in Colombia, and the reader learns a bit of Spanish too – all Spanish words are italicized and understandable in the context of the story. Juana’s happy, functioning family (in a unique environment) is also important, as oftentimes parents in children’s lit are absent, dead, or worse.
Author Juana Medina both wrote and illustrated the text, and her art is a colorful mix of black lines and watercolor. The effect is cheery and vibrant, and the simplicity of the figures and outlines is likely to inspire her grade-school readers to imitate and carry on telling Juana’s future adventures. My favorite page spreads were the ones where Juana identifies every item by name.
In all, Juana & Lucas is a vibrant, fun early picture book for any kid or kid-at-heart.
Recommended for: early readers, reluctant readers, fans of comics and art, and… anyone, really!...more
The one like = one book meme has quieted down a bit now, but for a week or so it overpowered my twitter feed. I like the idea of the meme (one like onThe one like = one book meme has quieted down a bit now, but for a week or so it overpowered my twitter feed. I like the idea of the meme (one like on the original post equals one book recommendation from the poster, sometimes multiplied by the hundred), but in execution it made twitter an unreadable mess. So, I was against it. BUT THEN… one of the recommended books caught my eye. I can’t remember who recommended The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth, but I do know they were convincing enough that I downloaded a sample. I got hooked. The rest is history.
Isabeau the Foundling has been raised by the mysterious (is there any other kind?) old wood witch Megan, deep in the mountains. With her 16th birthday approaching, she is hopeful that she’ll be able to leave her sheltered life and head out on an adventure. But the land beyond her mountain home is full of anti-witch sentiment, and though she has some power, her adventures won’t be without peril. What ensues is an epic tale following many strands of story, centered around Isabeau, witches, and an uprising to bring magic back to Eileannan.
Why I picked the book up: I couldn’t pass up the idea of an Australian poet writing high fantasy. Also, the dragon on the cover. I’m a sucker for dragons.
Why I almost put it book down: Celtic (Scottish? Irish? Lots of ken, o’, and so on) dialect that makes the dialogue hard to read. I’d stumble to a halt, figure it out, and continue on – but I felt the dialogue was a distinct disadvantage for the reader, especially early on. I was also kind of “meh” about what I thought the plot was going to be (young girl discovering her power and then going on a quest, everything working out nearly perfectly) – I’ve seen that a lot in my reading life.
Why I kept reading: At first I read to see if the story would unfold as I predicted it would. There were clues and names dropped in the first few pages that made me think I had it all figured out. It was refreshing to find out that it wasn’t that predictable (for the most part). I was also impressed early on by the largely female, multigenerational cast of characters. There was diversity of personality and power among the characters as well. I felt a bit spoiled by all of the women in the tale – I am not used to reading so many female characters being badass at so many different points of life and in so many different ways. That also lead to me shake my fist (on the inside) at all of the male-dominated books I’ve read in this genre all my life – I could have had this the whole time!
I also liked discovering the fairy/myth tale tie-ins throughout the story. And dragons, duh. Another plus: perspective switch-offs! The reader gets to “hear” the thoughts of many of the main players, even the villains.
Things that continued to annoy me: The Celtic dialogue and I never made friends. It was a slog at times, but like I said, I was hooked and I worked valiantly to make my way through the book despite the brogue. Related: everyone had a very similar accent. I tend to expect differences between the speech of those who live far from city centers, townfolk, and different species. The only discernable difference in this book was a creature divide – dragons and animals didn’t sound like their human counterparts.
Another pet peeve: the cover art is a lie (needs more dragons). I’m sure the series as a whole is probably very dragon-ish, but this first book functions as a set-up, that there really isn’t that much about dragons (sad!). That leads to another disappointment – I didn’t realize that so little is wrapped up in this first book – I saw that it received awards and thought it must be at least a bit of a standalone. Not so much. I feel about as satisfied at this point as I did after I finished the first Wheel of Time book, if that tells you anything.
Finally, there were a couple instances where characters experienced sexual abuse and/or rape. It wasn’t unpacked at all, and for such a female-centric story, I was disappointed (though not surprised, especially when I looked at the publication date) that that was the case. There were other kinds of torture too, also presented without comment. I felt that these instances of violence served primarily as a mechanism to shock the reader, and that they could have been replaced by almost any [insert terrible thing/suffering here]. As I said, disappointing but unsurprising.
I didn’t put it together until just now that I was reviewing a book that has deep Celtic roots on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s… lucky. If you don’t mind ‘reading’ the brogue, this might actually be the perfect holiday read for fans of fantasy (especially fans of Anne Bishop and Tanya Huff’s earlier stuff).
Recommended for: anyone interested in older epic fantasy that breaks the dude-hero stereotype, and those in the mood for an epic journey/adventure story with plenty of magic, magical creatures, and layers of motivations....more
Given that the adapted screenplay of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn was up for an Oscar a few nights ago, today seemed like a good time to talk about the bookGiven that the adapted screenplay of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn was up for an Oscar a few nights ago, today seemed like a good time to talk about the book (which I read over the Valentine’s Day weekend – perfect material, really!). The first thing you should know is that I read this book the wrong way ‘round. I had no intention of reading it at all (even though I had heard good things about it!), but then I saw the film. I LOVED it to bits. A couple of months later I saw the movie tie-in edition while browsing at the bookstore and took it straight to the register for purchase. I then read it in a night and a morning – thank you, weekends! I liked this book a lot – almost as much as I loved the film. Oh, it was good!
Tóibín is a master at:
1. Making the setting feel alive. He imparted the small-town feel of Eilis’ hometown of Enniscorthy in a spare, funny way that matched the repression and busy-body behavior of its inhabitants. In the same way, he pulled the reader into the bustle and strangeness of Brooklyn, without employing florid prose.
2. Inhabiting Eilis’ character and inner life. Good people are often difficult to describe in 3D, but Tóibín does it. He brings Eilis’ quiet hopes and dreams to life without boring the reader. Eilis, though faced with many challenges, never seems acted upon – she is the hero of her own story. An aside: It is too seldom that I can say that about works written by men about female characters.
3. Suffusing words with emotion. Although, or perhaps in spite of, the way that his characters repress their feelings, Tóibín captures the culture and spirits of the time period he writes about. In parts, the language, the descriptions, the topics of conversation (and those seemingly forbidden), reminded me very strongly of old letters my grandfather wrote my mother while she was away at school – in the 50s. So perfectly capturing the vernacular and feel of the era is a feat.
So far I haven’t said a thing about the plot, except to call Brooklyn a quiet book. And it is that, if you can call transatlantic voyages, falling in love, growing up and surviving tragedy quiet. It’s powerful, and beautiful, and though I usually prefer books with magic in them, I can tell you that this one is EXCELLENT.
The best books make me laugh and cry. I had high hopes for Brooklyn because the movie did both of those things, in spades. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Recommended for: anyone interested in books about strong women (not trying to be cliché here – just don’t know of a better way to say that!), fans of literary fiction and romance, and YA readers who don’t mind the labels on their books, as long as they are romantic and historical.
p.s. The film adaptation of Brooklyn = truly lovely. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a better book/film match (not saying that it’s a carbon copy – it’s not!)… just that Hornby rocked it and somehow transferred the exact feel of the book into film form....more
I see buzz on Twitter about the Saga comic series when it wins awards – and each collected graphic novel volume seems to win several apiece. It sometiI see buzz on Twitter about the Saga comic series when it wins awards – and each collected graphic novel volume seems to win several apiece. It sometimes feels like a year-round buzz cycle (in fact, the only comic my feed loves more is Ms. Marvel. which, for the record, I also enjoyed). It was inevitable that I’d finally take a look, especially when I realized that there was good female representation and the premise was “journey in space.” I picked up Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples after I saw a great deal in the Book Riot email list, so I now know what all the fuss is about.
Brian K. Vaughan has created an adult comic (I feel like I have to clarify that it’s adult, because YA is my default expectation for this space) for fans of science fiction, star-crossed love and action adventure. The first volume has a lot going on: birth, death, berserker rages, interspecies conflict, a sex planet, ghosts, crazy spaceships, and a life-changing romance novel (that bit made me laugh)(in a good way).
This comic does a lot of things well: multiple threads of story tied into the main plot line via an unusual omniscient narrator, exciting visuals, star-crossed love just fighting to survive, and humorous dialogue throughout. It is also a set-up for a wide-ranging epic, but the volume has enough skirmishes, close calls, and surprises to make it satisfying and interesting as a standalone.
That said, I was not impressed by main heroine Alana’s dialogue. Whether it fits the character in the context of the series or not, I can’t say. I was just disappointed to read pages of the jealous/nagging wife cliché when there were other more interesting (and life-threatening!) things going on at the same time. So that bit into my enjoyment – and I am going to skip reading further volumes. The one plot thread that really got its hooks into me was that of the Robot Prince – I thought the robot royal characters seemed really innovative and suited to the comics medium.
If you’ve been thinking you’d like to “try” comics, like science fiction, and don’t care for superheroes, Saga is a good place to start. Just be aware that this first volume pulls no punches – it’s R-rated. And if you’re more of a fantasy fan, I’d suggest starting out with Bill Willingham’s Fables.
Recommended for: comics newbies and veterans alike – basically anyone interested in a complex space adventure with enough action to keep the story moving and enough depth to hook most readers for the long haul....more
I’m not all that interested in collecting picture books for myself, but I do want to be the sort of honorary aunt who has the most extensive library aI’m not all that interested in collecting picture books for myself, but I do want to be the sort of honorary aunt who has the most extensive library and gives the best books as gifts to the children she knows. To that end, I’ve been paying more attention to picture book trends and award winners in recent years. I don’t automatically think, “Not for me,” when I see a picture book anymore. When I walked by the Scholastic booth at Book Expo America and saw the cover of Steve Antony’s The Queen’s Hat, I knew I had to check it out.
The Queen’s Hat is an adorable picture book illustrated in a limited palette of red, black and blue (which makes some pages a puzzle for the eyes – in a good way – a la Where’s Waldo?). Steve Antony plays with the idea of a hat stolen by the breeze, and takes his characters on a romp through London, to (and through! and over!) its most famous landmarks. Certain figures grace every page: the Queen of course, and her hat, but also her argyle-sweatered dog and a palace butler (complete with tea service). The adventures of the hat, its wearer, and her cohort make funny reading for young and old alike.
One of the strengths of the book is the accuracy of the blue line architecture drawings of London landmarks. They’re illustrated in exquisite, 2-D detail. The historical significance of each is explained on a page at the back of the book as well. The fun in most of the page spreads is in the handful, then dozens, then hundreds of palace guards crawling and climbing over the monuments as they try to retrieve the Queen’s hat. Of course, some (most?) of their feats are out of the realm of human possibility, so there’s a lot of imagination and whimsy involved. Which is just how it should be in a picture book!
In all, The Queen’s Hat is a charming, cheeky and entertaining picture book that’s likely to be requested and re-read over and over again.
Recommended for: young fans of Jon Klassen’s Hat books and the Where’s Waldo? series, as a gift for children who will visit London in the near future, and for anglophiles of all ages....more
Tammi Sauer’s Your Alien is a story written in the second person, featuring the adventures of a boy who finds an alien one night, adopts it and takesTammi Sauer’s Your Alien is a story written in the second person, featuring the adventures of a boy who finds an alien one night, adopts it and takes it everywhere, even to school. In the end, the alien gets lonely, and the boy must find a way to make things right. The story has strong themes of familial love and the comfort of a hug (for all). It’s very funny in parts, and just short enough that the second person narration didn’t lose its effectiveness. Goro Fujita’s illustrations are vibrant and both complement and elevate the text. They have a little bit of a film magic quality to them, so young ones will be reminded of their favorite movies featuring creatures from outer space. Your Alien is perfect bedtime reading, especially for the 3-6 year old set and anyone who enjoyed E.T. as a kid....more
Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura is an older title, but it is definitely a classic (as are almost all of Van Allsburg’s titles – this is the author behindChris Van Allsburg’s Zathura is an older title, but it is definitely a classic (as are almost all of Van Allsburg’s titles – this is the author behind Jumanji and The Polar Express, after all!). I was familiar with the title because I’ve seen the film based on this book starring a young Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart. The story is quite a bit like Jumanji, actually – a pair of brothers find an old game about space, begin to play it, and discover that the game alters reality. Sci-fi elements include space travel, robots, aliens, and time travel. Van Allsburg’s black and white ink drawings illustrate the adventure in beautiful detail. My favorite bit is that the brothers go from antagonizing one another to working together and valuing each other, though things get iffy once or twice. Zathura will please the older end of the picture book crowd as well as the littlies (and it would be a great gift to accompany the film!)....more
Deborah Underwood’s Interstellar Cinderella is a futuristic re-telling of the traditional fairy tale in verse, accompanied by Meg Hunt’s colorful illuDeborah Underwood’s Interstellar Cinderella is a futuristic re-telling of the traditional fairy tale in verse, accompanied by Meg Hunt’s colorful illustrations. In this version of the story, Cinderella has pink hair and a penchant for mechanics. In fact, she ends up proving her worth by fixing a broken spaceship (instead of fitting into a glass slipper). The poem is fun and funny throughout, and character diversity is always a plus. Hunt includes a lot of visual interest on every page, which could be a little confusing to the eye the first time, but fantastic for rereads. I picked the book up for the hologram/metallic lettering on the cover, but my favorite illustrations ended up being the end papers, which featured Cinderella’s various tools, labeled inventively. This is a great modern take on a popular princess tale, and one I’d suggest to anyone looking for an alternative or companion to the Disney classic. It’s sure to be a bedtime favorite for little girls (and their parents). ...more