Book Review: Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes

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Title: Dark Sons
Author: Nikki Grimes
Publisher: Blink
Paperback: 208 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

A guy whose father ripped his heart out too.

You and me, Ishmael, we’re brothers, two dark sons.

Destroyed, lost, and isolated, the perspectives of two teenage boys—modern-day Sam, and biblical Ishmael—unite over millennia to illustrate the power of forgiveness.

 

 

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I’ll be honest and say I did not know what I was getting myself into when I picked up Dark Sons.  I knew I had read things by Nikki Grimes before (and am embarrassed to say I could not remember what those things were) and that it looked like kind of an interesting.  I was pleasantly surprised both by the format and content of the book.

One thing to know (and again something I should have but didn’t know before I read the book) is that it is a collection of poems that tell the story of two sons dealing with a changing relationship with their father.  The first is Ishmael and his relationship with his father Abraham (from Old Testament fame) and the second is a more modern distancing about a teenager named Sam.  Through the course of the book the similarities and differences of these two interpretations are brought to the forefront through alternating sections of poetic cycles.

As someone who grew up in a fairly religious household (and as a result when I stopped being particularly interested in faith for religious reasons and more for academic ones), I really enjoyed the Ishmael side of the book.  He has always been a fascinating character to me and the role he plays is one that I feel like is ripe for a lot of different interpretations.  I felt like this interpretation of what his emotions and feelings must have been were incredibly well done and were interesting when compared to the Christian response in terms of how Sam was able to deal with his father’s new family in the modern part of the book.  It set up an interesting parallel of having God take care of these people while still not making a great life for them or seeming to always have their best interest at heart.

I thought the portrayal of Sam was also incredibly well done.  It felt incredibly real and is one of the few reasons I would potentially recommend this book to a student.  The way that the character processes emotions and was able to separate his feelings for his father and his new wife from those for his step-brother was quite interesting and something I feel like most people have had to do even if not with this particular situation.

I do not think I would ever assign this book primarily because I think that religion is a bit too explicitly central.  That said, I have several students that I am already thinking of who could relate and benefit immensely from this.  I also think that there are students like me who might see the comparison of Ishmael as almost a “patron saint” of someone abandoned by their father to be compelling even without the religious overtones it produces.  Overall, it was a good, quick read and the format was something different that I found quite refreshing (although, this should not be super surprising coming from me since my favorite format for books are short story cycles).

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Book Review: A Spy Called James by Anne F. Rockwell

a spy called james
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Title: A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent
Author: Anne F. Rockwell
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books
Hardcover: 32 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Told for the first time in picture book form is the true story of James Armistead Lafayette, a slave who spied for George Washington’s army during the American Revolution, and whose personal fight for freedom began with America’s liberation.

* I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I very much appreciate this book for existing in the first place — it’s a wonderful idea to introduce children to stories like these at a young age, especially stories like James’s are hardly ever told in schools. At least, they weren’t very often told in my schools when I was younger, but I hope that’s changing. As the description says, James Lafayette was a spy for George Washington’s Army during the American Revolution, and had to fight to obtain the rights that were given to other former slaves who served in the army because “spies” were not generally covered under the agreement that was made between slaves and the newly formed American government.

The story itself is simply told in a language that children will understand, but covers all the details. And I love the illustrations. They’re soft water-color type illustrations with a lot of blended colors and soft lines. It’s very child-friendly and I know I enjoyed looking at the pictures, so I think they might, too.

I could see this being in a classroom for children to enjoy during free reading time, or even have it being read aloud to children as part of a history lesson. And, of course, it’s a nice addition to the home library, especially for a history-lover.

Review: Manga Classics – The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Crystal S. Chan

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Title: Manga Classics – The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Story Adaptation: Crystal S. Chan
English Dialogue Adaptation: Stacy King
Illustrator: SunNeko Lee
Lettering: WT Francis
Publisher: Udon Entertainment and Morpheus Publishing
Paperback: 308 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

A powerful tale of forbidden love, shame, and revenge comes to life in Manga Classics: The Scarlet Letter. Faithfully adapted by Crystal Chan from the original novel, this new edition features stunning artwork by SunNeko Lee (Manga Classics: Les Miserables) which will give old and new readers alike a fresh insight into the Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tragic saga of Puritan America. Manga Classics editions feature classic stories, faithfully adapted and illustrated in manga style, and available in both hardcover and softcover editions. Proudly presented by UDON Entertainment and Morpheus Publishing

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I was first interested in this book, because I’m starting to branch out to reading more manga and I wanted to see how a classic story like The Scarlet Letter would translate to a manga. Overall, I think it’s a huge success. The story itself stays true to the original and the overall main points are still hit, which was a concern of mine when I started it. The pictures are beautifully done, and while I think there were a few too many panels of the priest “clutching his chest,” overall, it works out to be a quick read for a classic, captivating story.

Its strength really lies in how the novel is written in the first place. Hawthorne is someone who likes to be wordy and include a lot of description that is able to simply be shown in the drawings — no need to worry about five pages of foliage, when the foliage is right there in the pictures; it cuts down a lot on the slog and lets the reader focus on the story and characters in general. For people who don’t find Hawthorne’s style to be engaging, but who might like this overall story, reading Manga Classics would be a great way for them to be introduced to this story.

I can also see this as an amazing addition in the classroom, since it can be used as a tool for lower-level readers or those who have a problem with reading a lot of words stay engaged with the story and be able to participate in overall discussions on theme, characters, etc. It can also be used in a lesson where students can compare different story-telling formats and analyze the differences of manga versus prose. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Which do they personally prefer? Tons of possible lessons if you introduce a book like this to your classroom.

The Manga Classics version of The Scarlet Letter is a great read and definitely something to check out if you have a struggling reader who wants a bit of help getting through the story, or even if you just want to experience this story in a new format. Very well done — I recommend it.

 

Book Review: Oxblood by Annalisa Grant

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Title: Oxblood
Author: Annalisa Grant
Series: Victoria Asher, Book 1
Publisher: Open Road Media Teen & Tween
Paperback: 300 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

How far would you go to save the only family you have left? Victoria “Vic” Asher is finally finding some balance in her life. Though she’s still reeling from her parents’ death in a plane crash, she’s content with waiting tables at the Clock; window shopping with her best friend, Tiffany; and hanging out with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Chad. But when she receives a mysterious package in the mail from her brother, Gil–a law student doing research in Italy–she knows immediately that he’s in danger. Vic isn’t about to risk losing her only brother, so she sets off for Italy to find him. But when she runs into Ian, the gorgeous leader of Interpol’s secret Rogue division, who’s also searching for Gil, she quickly realizes that her brother is in much deeper trouble than she ever could have imagined. Vic will stop at nothing to locate Gil, but doing so could cost her her life–and her heart.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I love YA thrillers and strong female characters, so when I saw this on NetGalley, I knew I had to take a look and see what it was about.

Let’s go through the bad stuff first. There were a few things that bothered me about this story. The first is that a lot of the conflicts were made overly simplistic by the fact that they were resolved so quickly. The second is that most of the action and exposition takes place through dialogue. This is a huge pet peeve of mine — if you wanted to write what people say — write a screenplay. If you want to write through description and exposition, write a novel. Overall, it’s a not a huge deal, but it really does bother me when the whole novel basically takes place through conversations.

With that said, I enjoyed the story overall. I think it had a good amount of suspense and a few twists that I didn’t see coming, which was fun. Victoria is such a cool character, with her ability to adapt to situations, and I like that her skill in observation came in handy in her search for her brother. I hope that she grows more as the series continues and is able to get past the aren’t-I-such-a-sad-baby thing, because while she certainly has it tough, she also certainly loves lamenting over the fact that her life is tough. This one wasn’t a must-read for me, but I definitely can see people loving it for its constant stream of surprises.

Fun, quick read if you’re interested in a YA thriller. It certainly delivers on intrigue!

Book Review: Elite by Mercedes Lackey

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Title: Elite
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Series: Hunter, Book 2
Hardcover: 368 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Joy wants nothing more than to live and Hunt in Apex City without a target on her back. But a dangerous new mission assigned by her uncle, the city’s Prefect, may make that impossible.

In addition to her new duties as one of the Elite, Joy is covertly running patrols in the abandoned tunnels and storm sewers under Apex Central. With her large pack of magical hounds, she can fight the monsters breaking through the barriers with the strength of three hunters. Her new assignment takes a dark turn when she finds a body in the sewers: a Psimon with no apparent injury or cause of death.

Reporting the incident makes Joy the uncomfortable object of PsiCorp’s scrutiny—the organization appears more interested in keeping her quiet than investigating. With her old enemy Ace still active in Hunts and the appearance of a Folk Mage who seems to have a particular interest in her, Joy realizes that the Apex conspiracy she uncovered before her Elite trials is anything but gone.

As the body count rises, she has no choice but to seek answers. Joy dives into the mysterious bowels of the city, uncovering secrets with far-reaching consequences for PsiCorp… and all of Apex City.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I don’t know if I’ve been meta-analyzing books for too long, but I found myself willfully resisting the urge to do so with this book.  What I mean is that when I started reading it (more or less directly after finishing the first book in the series, Hunter), I found myself spending a lot of time trying to decide if I liked the way Lackey was trying to give enough background information for people jumping in cold vs. hampering the plot developing.  From there ,I found myself trying to decide if the pacing of the overarching story was well done.  While I have answers to both of these things now (if you are curious, I think she kept it about as short as she could and I actually loved the pacing since it didn’t seemed rushed, respectively) I found I had a lot more fun reading this book when I just took it for the story it is without trying to over think it.  And I have to say the result was one of the more immersive experiences I’ve had with a book in a while.

I get scared with sequels, particularly of YA, when I like the first book in a series.  A lot of times, authors seem to use the first story to build a great world in the opener and then just hit the turbo button to too-fast-developing-not-super-thought-out plot in book two.  This book absolutely did not do that.  At one point I found myself thinking that this book can feel at times feel like it is just an extension of adventures from part one, which some may see as a negative but I really enjoyed.  This is not to say that the larger plot does not advance.  There are a lot of pretty important developments and the conflicts between the different government programs that are theoretically all supposed to be working together is particularly interesting, however, this information is spread out throughout the book with fun “hunts” and social activity thrown in so it feels like a much more natural progression of story than other books I have read.

The conceit that was hinted at in the previous book that all of the Othersiders are represented in some way in human folklore or mythology is expanded upon in this book in an incredibly interesting way which opens up for even more questions about the worlds relationship with the Otherside.  I also found the consistency of magic in this universe to be very satisfying.  There is something almost scientific about the way magic usage is explained in this world and it leads to new discoveries in magic to be satisfying as a reader rather than random and like a crutch of some type to advance the plot.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised that I liked this book even more than the first one.  All the things I said in my previous review remain true, especially that the characters seem to act the way people really would which is something I love particularly in YA.  Now I just hope that the series does not suffer from my other largest concern which is not knowing how to end which retroactively makes me not enjoy the previous books as much, but for now I can confidently say that I cannot recommend this series enough if you are at all interested in YA fantasy!

Book Review: The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

Art of Rivalry
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Title: The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art
Author: Sebastian Smee
Publisher: Random House
Hardcover: 416 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Sebastian Smee tells the fascinating story of four pairs of artists—Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon—whose fraught, competitive friendships spurred them to new creative heights.

Rivalry is at the heart of some of the most famous and fruitful relationships in history. The Art of Rivalry follows eight celebrated artists, each linked to a counterpart by friendship, admiration, envy, and ambition. All eight are household names today. But to achieve what they did, each needed the influence of a contemporary—one who was equally ambitious but possessed sharply contrasting strengths and weaknesses.

Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas were close associates whose personal bond frayed after Degas painted a portrait of Manet and his wife. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso swapped paintings, ideas, and influences as they jostled for the support of collectors like Leo and Gertrude Stein and vied for the leadership of a new avant-garde.

Jackson Pollock’s uninhibited style of “action painting” triggered a breakthrough in the work of his older rival, Willem de Kooning. After Pollock’s sudden death in a car crash, de Kooning took over his mantle and became romantically involved with his late friend’s mistress. Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon met in the early 1950s, when Bacon was being hailed as Britain’s most exciting new painter and Freud was working in relative obscurity. Their “intense but asymmetrical” friendship came to a head when Freud painted a celebrated portrait of Bacon that was later stolen.

Each of these relationships culminated in an early flashpoint, a rupture in a budding intimacy that was both a betrayal and a trigger for great innovation. Writing with the same exuberant wit and psychological insight that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for art criticism, Sebastian Smee explores the way that coming into one’s own as an artist—finding one’s voice—almost always involves willfully breaking away from some intimate’s expectations of who you are or ought to be.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

One of my favorite things to learn about is how art is made — I mean art in a broad sense, in terms of writing, painting, filmmaking, etc. I find it incredibly satisfying to learn about the lives of those who’ve created amazing pieces of work, and learn how their circumstances influenced those works. So, when I saw that this was available on NetGalley, of course I requested it.

Sebastian Smee does a wonderful job in going through the pairs of artists and giving brief summaries of their lives and how they were affected by each other. I love that this gives a brief glimpse into each of the artist’s works, so that we can see these constructions were not created out of a vacuum, but within the life of an actual person. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that, so it’s nice to learn something about each artist.

The writing itself is incredibly understandable and I felt that the stories were fast-paced but well fleshed out. I was engrossed almost the whole way through and never felt like I was missing any information about the artists, but the story didn’t feel drawn-out. The perfect balance. 🙂

What would have made this book a five was if we were given a brief description of the time period and how art was currently viewed in the culture before delving into the artists’ lives and how they were changing it. We get a lot of detail on what the artists do, but not necessarily why that was groundbreaking for their time — the only reason I was able to almost keep up was due to my vague memories of an art history class I once took. I think knowing the context of the time period would have been incredibly helpful for understanding the different artists and appreciating their new approaches to art.

My favorite section was definitely the Matisse and Picasso chapter, but I also think that those are the two artists I know the most about, so there might have been a bit of a bias when it came to that. I also think it was the least dysfunctional relationship that Smee explores (at least, it seemed that way to me), so that also might have been a factor.

If you’re interested in how art is created, or learning more about the lives of some famous artists, then I definitely recommend you pick this up. I greatly enjoyed it.

Book Review: Ithaca by Patrick Dillon

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Title: Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey
Author: Patrick Dillon
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Hardcover: 352 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Telemachus’s father, Odysseus, went off to war before he was born … and never came back. Aged sixteen, Telemachus finds himself abandoned, his father’s house overrun with men pursuing his beautiful mother, Penelope, and devouring the family’s wealth. He determines to leave Ithaca, his island home, and find the truth. What really happened to his father? Was Odysseus killed on his journey home from the war? Or might he, one day, return to take his revenge?

Telemachus’s journey takes him across the landscape of bronze-age Greece in the aftermath of the great Trojan war. Veterans hide out in the hills. Chieftains, scarred by war, hoard their treasure in luxurious palaces. Ithaca re-tells Homer’s famous poem, The Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ resourceful and troubled son, describing Odysseus’s extraordinary voyage from Troy to the gates of hell, and Telemachus’s own journey from boyhood to the desperate struggle that wins back his home … and his father.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, the idea of telling a classic Greek tale through the perspective of another character in the story really intrigued me.  I love The Odyssey and was super excited to sink my teeth into a story from Telemachus’s perspective.  And I have to say, on that count I think this book was super interesting and successful.  Part one of this novel sucked me in, and I could not wait to keep pushing my way through the story.  I thought Telemachus was a completely fleshed out character and a lot of thought had gone into the effect not knowing his father would have on him.  I also thought that his exploration with Polycaste was one of the strongest parts of the novel.  Partly because she was another super interesting character and partly because this is a part of the story that has not been told to death and was rather innovative.

The rest of the book began to fall flat for me, though.  Odysseus being discovered and recounting his tale is when I started to drift out of my engagement.  I do not know how else the author could handle this (if someone has not read The Odyssey then they need to know what happened), but having Homer’s epic condensed to a chapter in plain English felt more like I was reading sparknotes than anything else which kind of bummed me out.  It also has the problem that the reader knows how the story is going to end and the final few scenes playing out are kind of a let down for that reason.

So again, I am torn.  I think that this book is really amazing at its best parts.  The characters are well developed and the take on various characters’ psyches is super interesting.  The idea that many of the heroes in these epics are brutes that are romanticized was a super interesting thread throughout, however, in the end it just feels like a lesser telling of a story we already know.  I do not know how this could be worked around, since changing the source material would obviously also be a problem, however, if this book were completely from Telemachus’s perspective and followed the format of the first part throughout, I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

That said, I have several students who either really love The Odyssey or think it is interesting but can’t get past the language.  I think this is the perfect book for either of those kinds of students since it is more accessible but also adds new ideas and viewpoints to the story.  I would happily have a copy of this book in my classroom to recommend to those students and think it could lead to some interesting discussions about the values of various societies.