Month: February 2018

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith has been sitting on my bookshelf for over 20 years. Growing up, my best friend implored me to read the book for years, and she is the one who gave me the copy I’ve had since high school. This is why it was high on my list for The Unread Shelf Project, and my first choice for the Bucket List Book Club. My first thoughts on this book were, “I cannot believe I waited so long to read it!” A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is so wonderful. Yes, it’s a classic, and yes, it is long, which can be a deterrent for me. But this isn’t like any other classic I’ve read. It’s beautiful and timely and fun to read, and the second I finished it I flipped back to the first page and read some of it again. If you joined in with the Bucket List Book Club’s reading of this, or have already read it, please comment below or on my Instagram page with your thoughts about this book! (We will be having a group discussion over on Instagram on Sunday, March 4, at around 2PM CST.)

“You won’t die, Francie. You were born to lick this rotten life.”

Francie Nolan and her family (mom, dad, and little brother) live in the slums of Brooklyn. Williamsburg, to be exact. This book is divided into 5 books, each one focusing on a different time period in Francie’s and her parents’ lives. The book is largely about Francie’s formative years in Brooklyn and her goal of getting out of the slums, but the other characters are fully formed, and we get an entire picture of how her family came to be, how and why Francie is the way she is, and how people of all kinds survived poverty in the early 1900s in New York.

There is too much in the book for me to summarize the plot here, and I don’t want to give anything away. But as my friend implored me years ago, I implore you to read this book! It is loosely based on Betty Smith’s life, and how she gained an education without the means to do so. Smith’s descriptions in this book are flawless. They are not overly flowery or long, but I wasn’t just reading about Francie’s apartment, I was there, eating bread paste meals with her, buying penny pickles on days where there was no food, and surviving the seasons. The depiction of how Francie and her brother Neeley had to get food were particularly stunning: the lengths to which poor families (the book’s verbiage, not mine) had to go to to just get scraps of food is unreal. (And still relevant today, shockingly enough.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is funny, emotional, sentimental, eye-opening, charming, and absolutely inspiring. Francie is a kindred spirit who loves books, libraries, chocolate, and learning. There are some passages that are a bit cringe-worthy, a sign of the times in which the book was written, some are shocking for the time, but on a larger scale, this book is still very relevant today. It truly will make you laugh, cry, think, and reconsider everything you know about how we live, how we survive, and how we can change our situations with determination and hard work. Bottom line: READ THIS BOOK!


Francie is a book nerd like the rest of us, and I love her for it. The moment she discovers that she can and wants to become a writer was a magical moment for me in the book. She is all of us who grew up embellishing the truth to make it sound better and discovering that that kind of lying is actually encouraged in writing. She reminds me of Anne Shirley quite a bit, and I think the two books would be wonderful companion reads.

Review: Force of Nature

Force of Nature

Thank you to Amelia at Flatiron Books for the review copy of this book! All opinions are my own!

You find the belongings or the shelter, the body’s always next. Always is.

When Anne Bogel picked Jane Harper’s The Dry as a selection for her Modern Mrs. Darcy book club, I couldn’t wait to read it. I ended up loving it (Check out my review of The Dry HERE.) and was excited to learn that she had a sequel (different setting, same detective, Aaron Falk) coming up very soon. Force of Nature, while quite different from The Dry, is just as atmospherically dramatic, and I couldn’t put it down until the very end.

Five females on a work-sponsored team-building trip head off on a days-long hike into the fictional Giralang Ranges in Australia. When only four of them emerge from the forest, a search and rescue mission is put together, and Agent Aaron Falk is called in to investigate. Each woman has a slightly different story about what happened, and they’re all hiding something. Falk also has a connection with the missing hiker, one that he can’t tell anyone about. Did someone on the trip murder the missing woman, or will she surprise them all with her own secrets?

I really, really liked this book. It’s very different from The Dry, though, but the writing is just as good. Where The Dry really got into character development and the characters’ personalities, what drives them in life, Force of Nature relies more heavily on plot. I love a good plot-driven novel, so that didn’t bother me, but I did miss getting to know the new characters in the book and getting to know Aaron Falk even more. Still, the plot is fantastic, the writing is snappy, and Harper does a wonderful job of switching back and forth between the investigation and what really happened on the hike. If you like suspense and well-written, if not as well developed, characters, you will love this book!

Force of Nature is a strong sequel, and Jane Harper is clearly a talented writer. If you haven’t read The Dry, I would recommend reading it first, but you don’t have to to enjoy this book. She’s at work on a third Aaron Falk novel, and I cannot wait for it!



We Heart Books-Valentine’s Day Love!

Valentine’s Day is coming! Yes, I know it’s not a real holiday. Yes, I know it’s pretty much the worst holiday. But I don’t care, I like holiday-themed books, and we’ve got them for Valentine’s Day too! These are some of our favorites, and what we’re reading this week and next week in anticipation of the fun holiday. (That I completely use as an excuse to eat chocolate and cook heart-shaped pasta.)


Love Monster
This is probably our favorite out of the whole bunch, and one of our favorite picture book series. Love Monster, Love Monster and the Perfect Present, and Love Monster and the Last Chocolate is about an adorable monster who lives in Cutesville. He thinks he is anything but cute, since he doesn’t look like the other fluffy animals in Cutesville, but he finds a friend who thinks he’s perfect, and he realizes that he’s just fine the way he is. Each book focuses on an aspect of friendship and how friends love you for who you are. I LOVE them, and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.

Slugs in Love
I bought this book because how often do you see a book about slugs in love?? It looked quirky and cute and it is! Marylou the slug loves Herbie the slug, but isn’t sure how to get him to notice her. Herbie feels the same way. Throughout the book, they write silly poems to each other all over a farm, and finally find each other in the end. It’s a very cute book, and not too mushy if you’re kids don’t like stuff like that. And it’s illustrated by Kevin O’Malley, one of my favorites!

A Valentine for Percy
If your child loves Thomas the train, he or she will love this sweet Valentine’s book! It’s very simple, about Percy searching Sodor for his Valentine, and all the engines celebrating together. There are also Thomas-themed Valentines included at the back of the book that kids can tear out and give to their friends, which might be worth it alone! Thomas Valentines can be hard to find!

Elementary/Middle Grade

The Kids of the Polk Street School-The Valentine Star
This was my book growing up, and I loved the Polk Street School series! I’ve been reading this one to my 9-year-old this week, and he really likes it. I would recommend the entire series, but if you want a Valentine-specific edition, you can jump right into this without having read the others. The students in Ms. Rooney’s class are making Valentines for each other and their teacher, but Emily Arrow is too focused on her new enemy, Sherri Dent, to focus on Valentine’s Day. It’s an easy read, and kids will identify with misunderstandings between friends and trying to impress the teacher. I’m so happy that this still holds up today!

Pee Wee Scouts: That Mushy Stuff
This was also my book growing up, and I have quite a few of the Pee Wee Scouts books too. The Pee Wee Scouts series is about a group of, you guessed it, Pee Wee Scouts, a group loosely based on Cub Scouts, with boys and girls. They earn badges together, play together, and get into trouble together. In this one, there is some mushy stuff, so be aware! A boy likes a girl, and while the Scouts are working on first aid merit badges, they also learn how to make Valentines with secret messages inside. The Scouts can’t decide which they like more, bandages or Valentines!

Middle Grade/YA

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble
We got this book in our OwlCrateJr box for February, and while my kids are not interested in it, I definitely am! I love the premise, and it takes place in Texas! Leonora Logrono’s family owns a bakery in Rose Hill and is getting ready for one of the biggest holidays of the year, Dia de los Muertos. (The Day of the Dead, and it is a big celebration all over Texas-our favorite local bakery sells tons of sugar skull cookies around that time!) Leonora really wants to help her family prepare this year, but she is still too young. When she sneaks off to the bakery late one night, she discovers that the women in her family are witches. And not just any witches, but brujas, witches of Mexican ancestry. Leonora realizes she has the same magic inside her, and has to decide whether or not to use it to help a friend. I am SO excited to read this book, and I love that it is going to introduce kids to a whole new culture. Being from Texas (I grew up in a border town as well), I grew up surrounded by this holiday, but a lot of people don’t understand it. It’s a celebration of the dead, and an important holiday to the Hispanic culture. If you have an older child who wants a book with a lot of magic, and a little bit of that Valentine’s love thrown in, give this one a try. As soon as I’ve read it I’ll post a review, but it looks fantastic!


Review: Caraval


Remember, it’s only a game . . .

To say I enjoy fantasy books is an understatement. I love them. But there has been so much wonderful literary fiction and historical fiction out lately that I haven’t read as much as I would like. When I saw that Caraval by Stephanie Garber was finally available on audio from Overdrive, I immediately checked it out. I’ve seen it all over bookstagram and was so ready to disappear into a creative, fantastical world. (If you love fantasy too, check out THIS blog post from Alisa at Worlds Within Pages-she’s reading ONLY fantasy in February!) Caraval falls on the side of very light YA fantasy, but I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad I listened to it.

Scarlett and Donatella Dragna have been stuck on an island their whole lives, living in isolation with their cruel, controlling father. All Scarlett has ever wanted is to escape her life and see the mysterious Caraval, a once-a year show that takes place in a new, secret location every year. Unless you have been to Caraval, you don’t really know what happens there, but she knows it has to be wonderful. This year, Scarlett receives a personal invitation to attend from the Caraval director himself, Legend. When she gets there, Scarlett realizes that Tella has been kidnapped and that Caraval is a game-this year the game is to find Tella. The winner gets a wish . . . and maybe Tella. Scarlett has to find her sister before the game ends, and before her father figures out what she’s done.

Do you remember those murder mystery dinner party games in the 80s and 90s? Where everyone at the party gets a character, and no one knows who did what, and everyone has to figure it out together? (I’m pretty sure there was even a Golden Girls episode about it.) That’s what Caraval reminds me of, in the most fun way. A mystery that guests are thrust right into. With a slightly higher creep factor, of course, since they’re actually trapped in an entirely different place. This book is truly pure fun, and I had a great time disappearing into this book on audio every chance I got. Some of the writing is a bit over the top, but I was there for the plot so I didn’t really mind.

If you want a quick, fun fantasy book, give Caraval a try. I think listening to it as an audiobook is perfect-the narrator narrated a portion of one of my favorite books of 2017, Echo, and she did a wonderful job here. She’s a great narrator and really gives each character their own personality, and I really hope she narrates the sequel, Legendary, which comes out in May!



Review: Carnegie’s Maid

Carnegie’s Maid

Thank you to Netgalley and Sourcebooks for the review copy of this book! All opinions are my own!

All around me, I heard cries of reunion as my fellow passengers fell into the arms of their waiting relatives. But I walked on. No one was waiting for me.

Marie Benedict has quickly become one of my favorite authors over the last year. Which is great, but also a problem because she’s only written two books and I want more! I read her first book, The Other Einstein, in June as part of the Big Library Read. It was a fictional re-telling of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, and the impact she had on his work and life. (And the credit she never received.) I loved it (You can check out my review of that book HERE.), so I was very excited when I found out her second book, Carnegie’s Maid, would be published in January. Readers, it did not disappoint. I loved it just as much as her first book, and I definitely recommend this historical fiction novel.

Clara Kelley has come to America on a ship from Ireland to make her way in the land of opportunity-her family needs money and jobs are scarce in 1860s Ireland. The boat ride over is rough-sickness, not enough food, not enough space, and many people didn’t survive the trip. When she hears someone calling her name (a very common Irish name) to get on a carriage to Pittsburg, Clara jumps at the chance. The only problem is that she isn’t the Clara Kelley the driver was waiting for-that Clara most likely never made it all the way to America. In Pittsburgh, she becomes a lady’s maid to Andrew Carnegie’s mother, a notoriously difficult woman. As she gets to know the family more, and very much fakes it until she makes it in an unknown environment, she develops a close relationship with Andrew. He teaches her about business, and she helps him with his business. The Civil War is in the background and while not a focus, it provides some interesting side stories. But when her identity is revealed, she has to make a decision whether to stay or go, and to fight for what is right for her own life.

Clara is a completely fictional character, but represents the countless number of immigrants who could have influenced the upper classes as America was still being formed. Benedict was inspired to begin research for this novel when she came across Carnegie’s letter to himself pledging to use his wealth to help less privileged citizens gain success through knowledge. She imagined why he would have written that, and Clara was born. As with Einstein, this book made me want to research the history behind it. This is a particularly interesting story because Carnegie, one of the wealthiest people in American history, came to American as a poor Scottish immigrant. He had drive, but he also had help along the way, and the dichotomy between him and Clara is extremely interesting. He recognizes that Clara is in the same position he was when he first came to American, and he wants to help her, but he also wants to be sure to maintain his status.

Clara might be a fictional character, but strong women in history are not, and there are so many stories that we will never know because of men taking the credit. Carnegie’s Maid is Benedict’s excellent attempt at giving a voice to some of those strong female influencers throughout history, especially during a time when the infrastructure of the United States was newly forming. And to be very plain, it was just a really good story that sucked me in within the first few chapters. Benedict writes fully formed, interesting characters, and I truly hope she continues writing these books and giving a voice to women in history, fictional or not.