Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Book Review & Giveaway: Wentworth Hall, by Abby Grahame

Grahame, Abby. Wentworth Hall. 288 p. 2012. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9781442451964.

Publisher's description

And you thought there were secrets in the Abbey...
The Darlington family of Wentworth Hall, an elite British family, fills their time by caring for their extensive estate, and looking over their shoulders as they struggle to keep up an elaborate charade to hide their scandalous secrets of illicit romances, and bitter betrayals.
Wentworth Hall is a lush historical novel by debut author Abby Grahame, which is spot-on perfect for fans of Downton Abbey!
Read an excerpt.

My review

The Edwardian era is my favorite time period history, and you already know I'm a huge fan of Downton Abbey, so I had fun reading Wentworth Hall.

With the story's action taking place in both the upstairs and downstairs of a distinguished yet slightly run-down manor, and a mysterious someone surreptitiously reporting the family's goings-on in a bitingly satirical newspaper column, this book is like a mashup of a British period drama and Gossip Girl.

While serious historical fiction aficionados may crave something weightier, fans of Anna Godbersen's Luxe series will flock to Wentworth Hall. This book is chock-full of delicious drama and appeals to a slightly younger audience than Godbersen's series-- scandal is alluded to, but nothing particularly steamy happens. (Which will be nice to remember at the library when I'm recommending books for 8th graders with a historical fiction assignment!)

The newspaper columns cleverly satirizing life at Wentworth Hall are a true highlight of the story, and the author offers some memorable dialogue amidst the briskly paced plot. My favorite, as one of the maids describes the Darlingtons, who are nearly destitute despite their noble lineage:
"They're rich and they've always been rich. They can't stop being rich just because the money has run out." 
Ha! You can tell Grahame must have had a ball writing this book.  


Simon & Schuster is generously giving away a copy of Wentworth Hall to two lucky readers of my blog! I am so excited to bring this giveaway to you. Just fill out the following form with your name and email address for your chance to win.

This contest is open to United States residents only. Must be 13 or older to enter. Entries must be received by 11:59 pm Pacific Standard Time on Monday, May 1st. Prizing courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Look for Wentworth Hall in bookstores on May 1st. Review copy provided to me by Big Honcho Media.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: Thumped, by Megan McCafferty

McCafferty, Megan. Thumped. 304 p. 2012. Balzer + Bray. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780061962769.

Last year, Megan McCafferty introduced the satirical dystopian world of Bumped, in which teen pregnancy is revered and two long-lost twin sisters become victims of society's out-of-whack ideals. (Read my review of Bumped.)

The plot of Thumped picks up right where Bumped left off and charges full steam ahead without an obvious rehash of the previous volume. If you're hazy on the details of Bumped, the first few chapters of this sequel might be a little confusing, but McCafferty smoothly weaves in the details of the first book as the story progresses.

Like its predecessor, Thumped is satire, with moments of laugh-out-loud humor, but sometimes the plot and characters seem a little scattered. There's a lot going on, and some of the secondary storylines (like: what's going on between Zen and Ventura Vida?) felt underdeveloped and didn't add anything to the book's main plot. I found Bumped hilarious, smart, and unexpected, whereas Thumped doesn't necessarily bring anything new to the table. At the same time, it's definitely a fun read, and it ends with a positive message. 

Bottom line: if you liked Bumped, you'll enjoy Thumped. I liked it!

Thumped will be available in bookstores everywhere on April 24. ARC for review kindly picked up for me at ALA Midwinter by my friend Lalitha of Masala Reader.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Author Interview and Giveaway: Double Dog Dare, by Lisa Graff

Today, I'm thrilled to host the final stop in Lisa Graff's Double Dog Dare blog tour!

Double Dog Dare is a middle grade novel filled to the brim with humor and heart-- I had a great time reading it.

In this book, fourth graders Francine and Kansas find themselves competing for the position of news anchor in their school's media club, and the winner will be decided by a competition of dares. The two can't stand each other at first, but it turns out they have something in common: their parents' divorces.

Lisa Graff strikes a neat balance between the hilarity of the dares and the tough stuff kids have to deal with, and young readers will really relate to this book. When I ask elementary school aged readers what kind of book they want, the most common response is: "something like real life and kinda funny." Double Dog Dare definitely fits the bill! It's a solid story that will appeal to both boys and girls, and I can't wait to recommend at my library.


As part of her blog tour, Lisa was kind enough to answer a few questions for me!

Reading Everywhere: Your writing authentically captures the feel of being a kid-- you really hone in on the things kids worry about and laugh about. How do you get in touch with your inner kid when you’re writing?

Lisa Graff: Thanks so much! That's something I try really hard to accomplish with all of my books. There are a lot of ways to get into that "kid zone" - I read a ton of children's books, for one thing, and visit elementary schools fairly often to talk about writing, so that helps. But most of it is just a matter of remembering. I’m pretty lucky in that I kept a diary for most of my growing-up years, so now it's easy to go back and see what a hilarious weirdo I was as a child. Case in point: I would like to share two pages from my actual fourth-grade diary.

(In case you have trouble reading my stellar nine-year-old handwriting, I will decipher for you:)
11/2/90  This year I'm in forth grade. I havent writen in a year, so I'm sort of out of date. It is still the 1990's but alot has changed. I havent written in so long because I lost my diary. This year I don't relly have a boy friend and I'm not relly poplaur, but I'm Ashley's best friend. And Ashley's relley poplaur this year, so I'll be more poplaur than Ashley soon. [Please note that this is a PHENOMENAL plan to take over the world. Please also note that it did not work in the slightest.] I relly like my theacher but, he gives me alot of homework, which I hate. His name is Mr. Oliver, [written before I got in trouble for passing notes in class later that year:] he's relley cute. [Text as altered after said note-passing incident:] no way!!

Reading Everywhere: I LOVE IT. I think my elementary school diaries were very similar. You're no stranger to writing for kids-- in fact, Double Dog Dare is your fifth novel for young readers. What do you like best about writing for a middle grade audience?

Lisa Graff: I really enjoy the themes of middle-grade novels-- family and friends and figuring out your place in the world. Something as slight as a snub from a friend can be so life-or-death at that age, and I love that. Because those things are extremely important, and we tend to forget that as we get older.

I also enjoy that my audience is very honest, and they know what they like and what they don’t. If they think my book is boring, they will just stop reading it. And then they will probably write me a letter to tell me how boring it is. I like being held to such a high standard.

Reading Everywhere: That's so true-- kids will always tell you what they think! You have a very memorable cast of young characters in Double Dog Dare. I empathized most with Francine and her determination to get the long-coveted role of news anchor in the fourth-grade media club. Which character in this book is most like you, and why?

Lisa Graff: I think I'm probably most like Francine, in that she has a lot of trouble dealing with things that don't end up the way she thinks they’re supposed to, like her plan for becoming news anchor, or her parents' marriage. That kind of thing always throws me off my game, too, and I sometimes have a lot of trouble recovering. But I think I'm also a little like Kansas, in that I have a tendency to take care of others before myself. (I wish I was also as good at basketball as he is!)

Reading Everywhere: They're both great characters! This book contains some really unique character names-- you don't meet a lot of little Kansas and Francines running around! How did you come up with the names in this book?

Lisa Graff: Sometimes characters just pop into my head with names already attached, and that was the case with these two. I have no idea where the name Kansas came from. Once I came up with his first name, I gave him the last name Bloom, which I thought was completely random, but later I wondered if I was subliminally channeling actor Orlando Bloom (another place name!).

Reading Everywhere: Well, it's not hard to see why Orlando Bloom might be on your mind! I mean...


So, you're originally from Southern California, but are now living on the East Coast. As a Southern California girl myself, I have to ask-- what do you miss most about SoCal?

Lisa Graff: Most people expect me to say that I miss the weather, but I actually grew up in a weird little pocket of Southern California (the San Bernardino mountains, to be precise) where it snows fairly frequently. So, eschewing the obvious answer (my family), I am going to have to say that I desperately miss the Mexican food. New Yorkers think they know what Mexican food is, but they do not. Some days I would murder someone for a really decent taco.

Reading Everywhere: Oh yes, Mexican food is part of the essential Southern California experience. I promise I will eat some authentic tacos in your honor! Lisa, thank you so much for this fabulous interview.


Readers, now that you've learned more about Lisa and her latest book, I know you must be eager to get a copy. I have good news for you! Philomel is giving away one copy of Double Dog Dare to one reader of this blog. All you need to do to enter is to email Lisa at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line READING EVERYWHERE. The winner will be chosen at random on May 1st. Good luck!

And if you're looking for another way to win, Lisa has just the thing for you! Together with Penguin Books, she is sponsoring a contest to see who can build the best Rube Goldberg Machine. Check out Lisa's video to learn more!

Many thanks to Lisa for inviting me to participate in her Double Dog Dare blog tour. I've had a blast! To catch up with the other tour stops and learn more about Lisa, visit the following:

Tuesday, April 10th: Mundie Kids
Thursday, April 12th: Smack Dab in the Middle
Sunday, April 15th: Pragmatic Mom
Monday, April 16th: Novel Novice
Wednesday, April 18th: From the Mixed-Up Files...
Thursday, April 19th: Greetings From Nowhere

And be sure to look for Double Dog Dare in bookstores everywhere!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: Ladies in Waiting, by Laura L. Sullivan

Sullivan, Laura. L. Ladies in Waiting. 336 p. 2012. Harcourt Children's Books. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780547581293.

This tale of three very different girls named Elizabeth in the era of King Charles II features a setting rich with details about fashion, customs, and favorite pastimes of England in the mid-1600s, painting a vivid picture of everyday life inside the royal court and out.

Ladies in Waiting explores roles of women at the time, especially their lack of agency, as each of the Elizabeths pursues goals that are frustratingly out of their reach. Romantic entanglements are a prominent feature of the plot, but there is not a perfectly swoon-worthy romance here-- rather, the love stories are all flawed in some way, highlighting the limitations on women at the time and making for quite a thought-provoking read.

Character development is similarly well executed. All three Elizabeths are fully fleshed out and interestingly flawed. Beth is unbelievably naive and bizarrely faithful to her dreams of true love, even when circumstances change for the worse. I honestly couldn't decide whether she was sweet or insane. Zabby is a likable, brainy girl trying to choose between head and heart. Her inner conflicts may prove a bit much for the reader at times, but ultimately make her a three-dimensional character. Headstrong Eliza is delightfully frank, using slang of the time in a most unladylike fashion to hilarious effect. I confess, her bawdy language makes her the most fun to read, and she ended up being my favorite Elizabeth.

Indeed, there's quite a bit of bawdiness in this one, making it most appropriate for an older teen audience, although the impact is softened by the fact that all scandalous content is referenced in antiquated terms likely to fly over the head of younger readers.

A slight drawback for me is the fact that significant parts of the narrative are fictionalized in a somewhat outlandish way. I'm all for fictionalization of events in a historical setting, but when it comes to portraying actual people, I prefer for the story not to deviate too much from reality or believability. Too, the third-person narration sometimes seems to speak from a contemporary viewpoint, explaining to the reader about the customs of the time, and I found that a little distracting.

Overall, Ladies in Waiting is an enjoyable read that will appeal to fans of historical fiction. With its quick pace and lively characters, it may also sway readers who think they don't enjoy the genre. It pairs well with Eve Edwards' Lacey Chronicles (starting with The Other Countess), a series with a similar tone, set about 100 years before this book.

Ladies in Waiting hits bookstore shelves on May 8. ARC for review provided by Harcourt Children's Books via NetGalley.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: Purity, by Jackson Pearce

Pearce, Jackson. Purity. 224 p. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2012. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780316182461. 

I had some pretty intense dental work done last week (fun, right?) and needed a really good book to keep my spirits up while recovering. Purity turned out to be the perfect book to curl up with for the afternoon. Funny, sweet, and thought-provoking, it kept my attention and left me with a feeling of contentment after I turned the last page.

Before Shelby's mother died, she made her promise three things: to listen to her father, to love as much as possible, and to live without restraint. Fast forward several years, and Shelby's dad drops a bomb on her: they are going to plan and attend a purity ball! When Shelby realizes that vowing to her father that she'll remain a virgin until marriage may directly contradict her promise to live without restraint, she decides to exploit a loophole: if she's not a virgin when she makes that vow, then it doesn't count.

As you can surmise from the slightly absurd premise, this book is hilarious. The juxtaposition of Shelby calculating the most efficient way to lose her virginity while simultaneously taking waltz lessons and going cake-tasting with her dad for the purity ball is uproariously awkward. It would make a great movie, complete with a terrifically embarrassing buying-condoms-in-a-drugstore scene.

On top of the comedy, this book has real heart. The strained relationship between Shelby and her dad is emotionally affecting as they fumble to relate to one another, as is Shelby's grappling with the loss of her mother. Too, I love the strong relationships between Shelby and her two best friends, Ruby and Jonas. (And those of you who have a soft spot for good friends who fall in love, get ready to be delighted with the romance in this story!)

This book also offers a sensitive exploration of some weighty topics such as grief and faith. The author doesn't offer any grand, sweeping statements about what's right or wrong-- just an affirming message that our choices are our own, and that's okay. It's positive without being preachy.

As a librarian, part of my job is to consider the audience for any book I read. One question I had going into Purity was: how will a conservative reader react to a book about a girl trying to lose her virginity before attending a purity ball? Things to consider: sex is a part of the plot, but it's not glorified, nor is the decision to have sex minimized. Shelby is realistically portrayed as a down-to-earth girl who sometimes makes poor decisions, and her plan to lose her virginity is not depicted as, you know, a super great idea. Shelby questions faith and spends time being angry at God over her mom's death, but there are no neat and tidy answers about faith in the end. As noted above, one of the main themes of this book is making your own choices. So, a conservative reader might appreciate this as a conversation starter, or they might decide it's not for them at all. To each their own, right?

Personally, I loved this book.

Look for Purity on bookstore shelves on April 24. ARC for review kindly picked up at ALA Midwinter by my friend Lalitha of Masala Reader.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review: Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

LaFevers, Robin. Grave Mercy. 549 p. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780547628349. 

This is the third book I'm reviewing for the 2012 Debut Author Challenge hosted by the Story Siren.

Set in medieval Brittany and layered with inventive supernatural elements, Grave Mercy is an appealing read for fans of historical fantasy. Young Ismae escapes an arranged marriage and finds refuge in a convent dedicated to St. Mortain-- the god of death. Blessed with supernatural powers, she becomes a handmaiden of death, expertly trained in the art of assassination, and is sent on an undercover mission to protect the Breton duchess from those who would betray her. And of course, since Ismae can't just waltz into court, she is accompanied by a handsome nobleman who isn't exactly thrilled to have her along for the ride.

LaFevers offers a tightly-written, suspenseful narrative with believable romance and inventive fantasy elements against a historical backdrop. There's also some unexpected and delightfully dark humor in the midst of political tension; Ismae can be very matter of fact about what she does, sometimes to hilarious effect.

I also enjoyed the thoughtful exploration of women's roles in the Middle Ages; Ismae is driven to serve the god of death not only because she is his daughter, but also because her circumstances in life have been cruel and she has no agency to choose her own path. The reader will root for Ismae on her journey of self-discovery as she learns to claim her power.

This book involves a lot of political intrigue surrounding the protection of the young duchess, Anne, with much hinging on finding Anne a suitable marriage prospect who will help defend the independent state of Brittany from French rule. I found this aspect of the plot fascinating because I read up on Breton history after the first few chapters of the book piqued my interest, so I understood the significance of the duchess and the importance of her marriage for the entire duchy. I'm not sure all the political scheming would come across as quite so interesting to a reader who's unfamiliar with the history of the region, however. Although the history is well incorporated into the story, this book would be enriched by a foreword or author's note.

(Of course, my librarian self says: all the more reason to learn some truly interesting history while you read an awesome book!)

Because Grave Mercy is the first volume in a trilogy, I was expecting a cliffhanger ending, and was pleasantly surprised to find a very satisfying conclusion. The next book will focus on one of the most intriguing secondary characters from this volume, and I'll be looking forward to it!

Grave Mercy is now available in bookstores everywhere. ARC for review provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Celebrate National Library Week

Are you ready to celebrate your local library? April 8 - 14 is National Library Week.

Did you have one particular library that was central to your childhood? I did: the Mission Hills Library, a small neighborhood branch of the San Diego Public Library system.

Mission Hills, San Diego Public Library
Photo by Flickr member Chimay
Isn't it charming? Built in 1961, the Mission Hills Library is a mid-century modern structure very typical of Southern California's government buildings of that era. The interior is just one rectangular room divided by shelves, with the children's area occupying a cozy corner. 

I remember endless hours browsing the children's shelves, finding books that would shape my formative years and eventually become old friends, like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, the Melendy quartet by Elizabeth Enright, and Edward Eager's magic books. 

Many of the books I read as a kid were at least 30 years old at the time, so I suspect this library might not have had a healthy budget for collection development- or maybe the librarian at the time was very opposed to weeding- but I'm glad for the "vintage" books I grew up on. 

Though it's a small library, the Mission Hills branch fed my hunger for reading as a child. There's an expansion in the works, with a whole new library site planned-- which is so wonderful for the community, but I wonder what will become of this old building. I hope the city maintains and repurposes it. I think it would break my heart if they were to demolish it!

So, tell me about your childhood library. Did you know your librarian? Was there a particular book you checked out over and over? 

And as you're basking in fond library memories, be sure to stop by your neighborhood library this week and give them some extra love for National Library Week.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Around the Web

What's caught my eye on the Web recently? Let me share a few links with you...

My friend Sandie and her sister Diana over at the very awesome Teen Lit Rocks do an occasional feature called "Confessions of a YA Junkie," and guess who's their latest junkie-- that's right, me! I'm truly honored. Check it out.

Another fantastic friend of mine, fellow youth services librarian, Lalitha, has started a new blog celebrating multicultural youth literature. I love it! (And trust me, I'm not just saying that because L's my friend.) If you like thoughtful book reviews with a focus on diversity, add Masala Reader to your RSS feed.

Sarah Wethern shares some brilliant strategies to combat reader burnout at The Hub. I especially like her suggestion to switch formats when a book isn't working for you. (By the way, YALSA members: Sarah is running for the Printz committee. Be sure to vote by April 27th!)

And speaking of the Printz, everyone's buzzing about John Green's The Fault in Our Stars as a shoo-in for the Printz Award. I enjoyed the book quite a lot, but I also like this critical look at it from Katy at The Book Lantern. Spoilers abound, but you've read the book by now, haven't you? (Personally, I would be pleased to see The Fault in Our Stars win the Printz, but I'm really rooting for Elizabeth Wein's heart-wrenching WWII novel, Code Name Verity.)

I was fascinated by School Library Journal's interview with Sarah Ludwig, a librarian who is now the "technology coordinator" at a K-12 private school-- essentially, a school librarian with an emphasis on using technology to enhance learning. Talk about a cool job!

And finally, a little self-promotion: I shared back in January that my podcast co-host, Michelle, and I would be attending Passion and Prose, an exciting new conference for romance readers and writers-- and I'm pleased to report that it was a fabulous event! Check out the Passion and Prose event coverage at Authors are ROCKSTARS!, including sound bytes from a handful of the fabulous writers in attendance and a portion of the Breathless Reads panel, sponsored by Penguin, featuring YA authors Marie Lu, Beth Revis, Andrea Cremer, Jessica Spotswood, and Sara Wilson Etienne.

Have a good weekend, everybody!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Audiobook Review: Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

The Dead End in Norvelt audiobook along for the ride on my commute.
Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. 2011. Macmillian Audio. Audiobook $29.99. ISBN 9781427213563

Ah, the 2012 Newbery Medal winner. What can I say? I was rooting for Gary D. Schmidt's Okay For Now, so I couldn't help but experience Dead End in Norvelt through the lens of my disappointment. I can't get over the fact that Okay For Now wasn't honored by any of the ALA Youth Media Awards. (It did just win big over at School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books, which is completely awesome... but still!) 

So, although my perspective on this book may be somewhat biased, I liked Dead End in Norvelt quite a lot. I didn't love it-- but I did enjoy this semi-autobiographical tale of a wacky and life-changing summer in the life of young Jack Gantos as he ends up grounded and spends much of his time transcribing obituaries for an elderly neighbor.

That may not sound like an enticing plot, but surprisingly, my favorite parts of the book were the obituaries. I was so moved by the thought of one very dedicated woman dictating not only tributes to her friends and neighbors, but documenting her beloved town's history. Really, really lovely stuff. Indeed, the overall theme of history- Gantos' affection for studying it, the idea that we should all learn from it- is woven throughout the story to great effect.

Still, this book isn't quite as cohesive as I would expect from a Newbery award winner. There are a lot of plot threads and a lot of characters, and I was expecting them to all intersect and come together in some sort of awe-inspiring way, but... they don't. A mystery is solved, the main character learns an important lesson, and the book just seems to trail off in the end.

That said, I'm very much looking forward to attending this year's Newbery Caldecott Wilder banquet at the ALA Annual Conference in June to see Jack Gantos speak. If his solid performance on this audiobook recording is any indication, his speech should be fantastic. I did find myself missing the variety of character voices I enjoy in audiobooks narrated by professional actors-- but Gantos has a gift for presenting his own writing in an engaging way with a great deal of heart.

At my library, I often help middle school students who are assigned to read a Newbery winner. I would certainly recommend Dead End in Norvelt to any reader looking for a humorous pick.
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