Baker’s Magic

It’s rare that I read a middle school book that doesn’t drive me nuts. Most of them contain so much teenage slang and silliness that I don’t make it past the first few pages. Absolutely nothing wrong with slang and silliness, but it’s not for me. I listened to Baker’s Magic over the course of a few weeks, so I apologize if the character names aren’t spelled the same in the book, and I was so delighted by this book. The characters are fun, the plot is creative, and it’s totally appropriate for middle school kids (and older, of course) who just want a fun story without a lot of drama and nonsense.

Bee is an orphan girl who steals from a bakery, gets caught, and gets a job. Mr. Bouts, the baker, takes pity on her and offers her an apprenticeship in his bakery. Bee quickly learns how to make assorted goods and discovers a bit of magic. She can bake her feelings into the goods. If she feels scared while baking, the eater will feel scared. Her goods are requested by the mage at the castle, so Bee heads off to deliver and ends up meeting the very sweet, Princess Annika.

Annika confided in Bee that she is to be married off to an old man. The mage is dispensing Annika so he can rule the kingdom himself. The mage is a terrible person who got rid of all the trees in the kingdom, and now the kingdom is washing away.

Bee and Annika and Bee’s friend, Vill, head off in search of help and get discovered by pirates, make a few important discoveries, and learn the true meaning of family and friendship. I loved this book. It was fun and sweet and just a great well-written story. If you are looking for a book for your middle-grade student or child, this one will be a hit.

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The Great American Read

I’ve been following The Great American Read since it’s debut this past May. When I saw the 100 books selected, a few things jumped out at me. First of all, Fifty Shades of Gray was on the list. YOU. HAVE. GOT. TO. BE. KIDDING. ME. If we are talking about quality literature or even just books that have some sort of purpose, this isn’t it. Not even a chance. Secondly, one of my all-time favorite books wasn’t on the list: Les Miserables. I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s just beautiful. It’s not the musical (which is a travesty of an adaptation, btw) because it’s just so much better. One of the best stories I’ve ever read. Finally, I was pleased to see so many non-classics on the list. Modern books like Gone Girl, Looking for Alaska, The Book Thief, and Americanah. And there were some hidden gems like A Confederacy of Dunces, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Swan Song.

It’s no surprise that To Kill a Mockingbird received the most votes. What is shocking is that the Outlander series came in second. What a piece of crap. This series has zero merit. It’s simply a fun romance series. I get that it has a place in the world of books. And that’s perfectly fine. But to be the second best book/series of all-time? Nope. No way. Harry Potter came in third. THIRD!!! That series completely revolutionized literature, and it came in third. Ugh. My all-time favorite book, 1984, was in the top 20, which is pretty great. And The Book Thief was 14, which is really one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Here’s the complete list of winners, in order of votes received.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. Outlander (Series)
  3. Harry Potter (Series)
  4. Pride and Prejudice
  5. Lord of the Rings
  6. Gone with the Wind
  7. Charlotte’s Web
  8. Little Women
  9. Chronicles of Narnia
  10. Jane Eyre
  11. Anne of Green Gables
  12. Grapes of Wrath
  13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  14. Book Thief
  15. Great Gatsby
  16. The Help
  17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  18. 1984
  19. And Then There Were None
  20. Atlas Shrugged
  21. Wuthering Heights
  22. Lonesome Dove
  23. Pillars of the Earth
  24. Stand
  25. Rebecca
  26. A Prayer for Owen Meany
  27. Color Purple
  28. Alice in Wonderland
  29. Great Expectations
  30. Catcher in the Rye
  31. Where the Red Fern Grows
  32. Outsiders
  33. The Da Vinci Code
  34. The Handmaid’s Tale
  35. Dune
  36. The Little Prince
  37. Call of the Wild
  38. The Clan of the Cave Bear
  39. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy
  40. The Hunger Games
  41. The Count of Monte Cristo
  42. The Joy Luck Club
  43. Frankenstein
  44. The Giver
  45. Memoirs of a Geisha
  46. Moby Dick
  47. Catch 22
  48. Game of Thrones (series)
  49. Foundation (series)
  50. War and Peace
  51. Their Eyes Were Watching God
  52. Jurassic Park
  53. The Godfather
  54. One Hundred Years of Solitude
  55. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  56. The Notebook
  57. The Shack
  58. A Confederacy of Dunces
  59. The Hunt for Red October
  60. Beloved
  61. The Martian
  62. The Wheel of Time (series)
  63. Siddhartha
  64. Crime and Punishment
  65. The Sun Also Rises
  66. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  67. A Separate Peace
  68. Don Quixote
  69. The Lovely Bones
  70. The Alchemist
  71. Hatchet (series)
  72. Invisible Man
  73. The Twilight Saga (series)
  74. Tales of the City (series)
  75. Gulliver’s Travels
  76. Ready Player One
  77. Left Behind (series)
  78. Gone Girl
  79. Watchers
  80. The Pilgrim’s Progress
  81. Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
  82. Things Fall Apart
  83. Heart of Darkness
  84. Gilead
  85. Flowers in the Attic
  86. Fifty Shades of Grey
  87. The Sirens of Titan
  88. This Present Darkness
  89. Americanah
  90. Another Country
  91. Bless Me, Ultima
  92. Looking for Alaska
  93. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  94. Swan Song
  95. Mind Invaders
  96. White Teeth
  97. Ghost
  98. The Coldest Winter Ever
  99. The Intuitionist
  100. Doña Bárbára

 

 

Murder at the Vicarage

I’ve never read an Agatha Christie book. She is someone who clearly deserves the respect she is given, but she’s never really been on my radar. I know she has a few one-off books like And Then There Were None, but she is mostly known for her Miss Marple series and her Hercule Poirot series. For the book challenge, I needed to read a book with a female protagonist over the age of 60, and although Miss Marple is simply described as elderly, I am making the leap of faith that she is at least 61 years old.

Agatha Christie died before I was born, so it’s safe to assume her books are considered classics. There’s no DNA evidence, no forensic investigation, just old-fashioned police detective work. So when a man is found murdered, the police, unhappily aided by busybody Miss Marple, are left to simply put the pieces together. Witnesses are interviewed, secrets are kept, affairs are had, and the mystery gets solved.

What I wasn’t expecting was a level of humor in the book. I chuckled a few times at Christie’s clever turn-of-phrase. The story is told from the vicar’s perspective and the murder happened in his home (he’s clearly not the murderer, so take that out of the equation now) but he aids the police in finding the killer. He likes Miss Marple’s snark and doesn’t mind discussing his information with her, as opposed to the police who are just annoyed by her. Marple is a likable, fun character, and I really enjoyed this book. I will also be reading the first Hercule Poirot book later this year, so keep an eye out for that review.

The Haunting of Hill House

I like a good horror story, and the less graphic it is, the better. I appreciate a writer who can create a suspenseful mood, a creepy atmosphere without having to use blood and gore to get the desired impact. There are a few stories like this that come to mind, namely Bird Box. I think it’s also much harder to write a good suspense novel than one full of gore.

The Haunting of Hill House is the type of story that you just don’t see anymore. It’s not graphic in the least. There’s nothing squeamish about it. Nothing that you will need to skim past because it’s so gross. But it’s definitely one of the creepiest books I’ve read. Shirley Jackson was a pioneer of the modern horror genre. Her short story, The Lottery is a must-read. I used to teach it and my students absolutely loved it. Again, nothing graphic (I taught it to 12-year-olds) but just a terrifying concept. I’ve been meaning to read Hill House for a while and was really excited when it came up on my Kindle.

The story follows a doctor who wants to “study” Hill House because no one can spend more than a few nights there. He brings along a member of the family that owns the house and two women who are in tune with the paranormal side of the world. The caretakers only work there during the daytime, refusing to be there after dark. We soon learn that the house is built in a very odd manner, circling in on itself leaving the residents confused and lost much of the time. They learn the backstory of Hill House, and the creepiness begins. The story is a slow-burner, meaning not a lot happens in the first half, but once it gets going, the psychological effects on the residents and the readers begin.

I really enjoyed this book. I understand why it’s considered one of the best horror books ever written. Even if this isn’t your genre of choice, don’t be too afraid to give it a try. There’s no blood and guts aspect to it. Just a good old-fashioned creepy tale.

Girl in Snow

I really love Netgalley, but I’m just really bad at making the books I get from them a priority. When I got Girl in Snow from them a couple of years ago, I had every intention of reading it quickly, but it just got buried under all my other books. But when I saw I needed a book with a weather element in the title, Girl in Snow jumped right into that slot. And if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I’m very particular about mystery/thriller books because so many of them are poorly written. I’m always nervous when I start a book by an unfamiliar author, but wow this was a great one. I’m so happy to report that this was a very well-written, interesting book.

The story is told from three perspectives, all third-person narrator, but from that particular character’s point-of-view. We meet Cameron, an outcast with a rough family story who draws amazing portraits, but who also has a secret. Next is Jade, also an outcast with a rough family, but much angrier about it. Finally is Russ, the police detective tied to the case in an unusual way. At the center of the story is beautiful Lucinda, who is found murdered one morning on the playground of a sleepy Colorado town. It’s likely Russ didn’t do it, considering he didn’t even know her, but Cameron and Jade are on the fringes of suspects because they lived near Lucinda and both knew her. Equally a suspect is Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend, Zap.

I’m really not sure if this book fits into the adult or young adult category, but no matter, because it’s great. I really didn’t know which character murdered Lucinda until the reveal, but the murderer wasn’t just thrown in as a random person never mentioned in the book (like a drifter), so the rationale was explained and legitimate. This book was a quick little read with great, clever language, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

 

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I’ve seen this title floating around for awhile and had heard it was great, but I really didn’t know much about it. I had added it to my “to-read” list at some point and when I saw it was available on Kindle Unlimited, I went ahead and downloaded it. I have read a great number of books about World War II, but I had never heard the story of Pino Lella. As told to the author, Mark Sullivan, Pino’s story is one of the most dramatic and craziest I’ve read, outside of Holocaust stories. And this one is sad, make no mistake, but it’s also really interesting and unique.

Pino is just an Italian kid trying to avoid being drafted into a war he doesn’t support. His family sends him and his younger brother to a church/school where Pino learns to climb the Alps to help persecuted Jews escape to freedom. Clearly, we see which side Pino is on and rooting for him is easy. Once he turns eighteen, he is expected to join the war, though. So he agrees to join voluntarily and gets assigned to be a diver for Hitler’s left-hand man, a German in Italy who must communicate with Mussolini, decide where “slaves” are deported, which weapons need to be delivered to which location, etc. Pino turns spy. He reports everything to the authorities, never forgetting where his allegiences lie.

There is a really beautiful love story woven in with the war. And knowing all this really happened and that Pino is a real person is just heartbreaking and amazing. I’ve learned that nothing is unfathomable when it comes to World War II and that I should never be surprised when I read another true account, but this was one I didn’t see coming. Once Pino starts driving for the general, I really couldn’t put the book down. I knew Pino lived (spoiler alert, he has to tell the author his story….) but I was constantly wondering where the main players in his story would end up. I really enjoyed this one and think it’s one of the highlights of my year.

And The Ocean Was Our Sky

One of my favorite things about picking up a Patrick Ness book is that I have no idea what I’m going to get. It might be a sweet, sad story like A Monster Calls, a dystopian trilogy like Chaos Walking, a realistic coming-of-age story like Release, a semi-realistic story with a dash of supernatural like The Rest of Us Just Live Here, a crazy mystery like More Than This review, or a flip on a classic tale like And The Ocean Was Our Sky.

Anytime Goodreads tells me Ness has a new book coming out, I hop over to my library and place a request. They are great about buying his books, and I’m usually the only one to request it. When I picked this one up, I saw a boat and a whale on the cover and noticed it was illustrated. Huh. That’s not what I was expecting, but really, I just never know what he’s going to come up with, so anything goes. And, because I didn’t read the book jacket, I had no idea what this book was about, so it took me a few pages to understand what was going. The story is told from the perspective of a whale named Bathsheba (First line of the book: Call me Bathsheba….. do you see where this is headed??) who is an apprentice in a pod of whales searching for a man named, wait for it….. wait for it……. wait   for    it……… Toby. Wick.  COME. ON!!! I WAS SOLD. Immediately. Part of me realized that this could be the dumbest book written, but it’s not. Truly. It’s brilliant and creative and is an amazing way to introduce the Moby Dick story to younger kids.

The plot really is pretty basic. Bathsheba’s pod attacks a ship of men, captures one of the sailors, and keeps him for information about Toby Wick. You quickly realize the whales are vastly smarter than men, and the rationale behind the hunt is explained. There are some really beautiful illustrations to accompany this creative story. You really can’t go wrong with reading a book by Patrick Ness. He’s just supremely talented and his stories are varied. There’s something for everyone!