A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

A Study in Charlotte

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Young Adult literature, detective lit

Medium: Paperback

Synopsis: Jamie Watson is new to Sherringford, a boarding school in the United States.  He’s there on a rugby scholarship, which he’s not too excited about.  What he is excited about is the fact to meet Charlotte Holmes, a person he’s only dreamed about meeting ever since he heard of her.  After a rather unpleasant introduction, he realizes that just because Watsons and Holmes have an intimate history doesn’t mean that they will have any sort of friendship.  But it isn’t until the two are framed for a murder on campus that the two must learn to work together or be killed in the process.

Review: If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes and young adult literature, then I highly recommend this book.  It’s filled with intrigue, teenage drama, and a lot of references to the original works.

One thing that I really appreciated about these books is the fact that the Sherlock character, Charlotte, is a girl.  I’ve don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this before (with the exception of Elementary’s Joan Watson), and neither had the author, hence her inspiration to write this novel.  Additionally, I loved the way that she wrote Charlotte.  Obviously Sherlock has quite a few flaws such as being too blunt, not telling Watson anything, and of course, his drug problem.  Charlotte has those too, and a few more to boot since she’s an incredibly smart woman in a man’s world.  Topics such as the drug problem can be difficult to discuss, but I think Cavallaro does it well.  Charlotte goes back and forth between using her drug of choice, even after going to rehab two or three times.

Another thing I really appreciated is the fact that, in the same tone as the original stories, this book is from Jamie’s perspective.  He’s constantly left out of the loop–which works for us as the audience.  I’ve seen a lot of criticism about first person pov novels, and how they tell the reader what’s happening instead of letting the reader make assumptions for themselves.  But because Jamie is so often left out of the loop, or Charlotte passes information on to him without him having observed the evidence himself, we as the audience are allowed to make deductions as to who committed murder, and why.  Not that I’m any good at solving mysteries, but hey, at least I tried, right?

What I also enjoyed about this book is how Jamie and Charlotte go through different kinds of character growth.  Jamie must realize that Charlotte isn’t all that he imagined her to be, and even as he gets to know her better, she’s still not who he expected her to be.  Charlotte, on the other hand, struggles between having grown up in a family where she’s expected to be emotionless and learning to let those emotions come back into her life.

However, one thing that I’ve been constantly going back and forth on since I read this was Charlotte and Jamie’s relationship.  At the beginning, Jamie only wants to meet Charlotte, just wants to be her friend, just wants to solve crimes with her, just like Sherlock and John did.  But as time passed…well, you can probably guess.  He definitely gets a little bit infatuated with her.  While I was reading the book, I was rooting for them, rooting for the two to get together, or at the very least have a little heart to heart.  But the second I’d put the book down, I was a little annoyed that the two were likely going to get together, on account of Charlotte being a girl and Jamie being a boy.

Then again, I wonder if that’s possibly a response to the gay subtext that’s been present in the original stories and other variations of Sherlock’s adventures, or whether it’s just the fact that a boy and a girl can’t simply be best friends.  Who knows.  But I think it brings up a few good discussion points, especially in regards to Doyle’s work and more contemporary representations.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  It was funny, stressful, and all around delightful.  It’s a perfect book to read under a tree with a vanilla latte.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Middle Grade/Young Adult literature, fiction

Medium: Paperback, advanced reader’s copy

Synopsis: Conor has been plagued by two things: a recurring nightmare, and his sick mother.  Every night, at 12:07, Conor wakes up from a nightmare.  But this night, it’s different–it’s a different nightmare, one that’s significantly less scary, and one that looks like a yew tree.  The monster is there to tell Conor three tales, in exchange for a story when he is all done.  But what happens when Conor’s mom suddenly takes a turn for the worse?

Review: If I hadn’t finished this book in a public space, I would have bawled my eyes out.  I feel as though I state in many of my reviews about middle grade novels just why the novel is so important for both the child and parent to read–because the truth of the matter is that many middle grade and young adult novels focus on so many aspects of life that I haven’t seen as often in adult books.

This book really hit home for me, so it might be a bit difficult to do an objective review.

From the beginning, I knew that the monster was really a metaphor for grief.  What I didn’t know, however, was how well it was portrayed in the novel.  The monster is a nightmare–that’s all it is.  But Conor still wakes up and finds leaves and pieces of bark in his room, despite his window being closed.  So then, is the monster real, or is it not?  And the same questions can be applied to grief.  How real is grief if nobody else sees it?

Each of the tales the monster offers has a specific lesson to it, though it’s never spelled out immediately to Conor or the reader.  This gap between tale and lesson gives the reader a chance to think about what the tales mean, and how it might just apply to them personally.  For me, the second tale was my favorite–a tale about destruction.  When Conor helps the monster destroy the nightmare-fueled church only to realize he was actually singlehandedly destroying his grandmother’s sitting room, I was equally horrified and proud of Conor.  Horrified, because, well, he just effectively destroyed an entire room, and proud because oh my god I want to do that, too.  I think many people don’t realize not only how effective it is to destroy something, but how much grieving people want to destroy something.  I mean, why not–something else in your life has already been destroyed, right?  Granted, I don’t speak for all grieving people, just myself.

And, of course, Conor feels all alone.  He has others who understand what he’s going through, like his grandmother and his father, but that doesn’t matter.  He feels alone.  And that’s not just some self-isolation thing that Conor’s doing in order to appear tough on the outside, it’s a very real thing.  Additionally, people treat him differently, which is also a very real thing.  When you want to have just…….one singular sense of normalcy in your life but can’t have it because everybody’s weirdly pitying you or people you haven’t talked to in a long time are saying how sorry they are, it’s a bit bizarre, and not in the least bit normal.  And that’s all he wants: normal.

So, basically what I’m trying to get here is that if you haven’t experienced grief, are pre-grieving (yes, totally a thing!), or grieving, this book is definitely for you.  It will make you laugh and cry in all the right places, and will teach you some very good ways on how to cope with what you’re feeling.

Unlovable by Dan Yaccarino

Unlovable

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Children’s literature, fiction

Medium: Paperback, advanced reader’s copy

Synopsis: Alfred thinks he’s not as lovable as the other pets in his household.  He thinks he’s got a funny face, and he’s got tiny legs, too.  So what happens when there’s a new dog next door?  And what happens when Alfred tells a little lie about himself to get this dog to like him?

Review: An adorable children’s book about a pug???  Sign me the heck up.  Complete with cute illustrations and a lovable ending, this book is fantastic, and I wish that I bought it for my mom’s classroom when I had the chance.

Thanks to the other housepets, Alfred feels unlovable and quite ugly, too.  When a new dog moves in next door, all he wants to do is impress him.  So he tells a little lie.  Then one day, the neighbor dog decides to meet Alfred, and Alfred gets a little surprise!  Turns out he’s lovable after all.

Spoilers starting here!  The dog ends up being another pug.  Okay, end spoilers.  I’ve seen some people critique this book for sending an “almost right” message, or a totally wrong message.  I personally disagree, but to each their own, right?  While I understand that loving yourself shouldn’t depend on finding somebody who looks just like you (which I believe is what these critiques are founded upon), I think that Yaccarino is actually discussing the importance of representation and finding like-minded people.  I mean, it’s lonely as a kid to have all these hobbies and have nobody to share them with, or worse, to have people make fun of you for them!  So, no, you don’t necessarily need somebody exactly like you, but somebody with a couple similarities helps!

I mean, when Alfred is worried about his funny-looking face, and he discovers that his new best friend has the same type of funny-looking face, that makes him feel good!  And because his new best friends like the same kinds of things that he does, that makes him feel even better!  So, I guess what I’m trying to say here is that while self-love with no boundaries is extremely important, so is recognizing the similarities between yourself and others you admire to help that self-love along the way.  Yaccarino, in my opinion, does a great job of this.

The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis

The Whiz Mob

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Children’s literature, fiction

Medium: Paperback, advanced reader’s copy

Synopsis: Charlie is the son of a diplomat.  He’s polite, he attends social functions, and he’s bored.  He’s working on his studies in the park one day, until a kid about his age chats him up.  The next thing he knows, the kid is gone, and his pen has been replaced with a stick.  Instead of giving the kid over to the authorities, he demands that he be taught the ways of a pickpocketer.  But Charlie never expected the whiz mob, and he certainly never expected the School of Seven Bells.

Review: I think I read this book in two days, it was that good.  The cover and the title is what first drew me to it, and I asked my boss if we could get an advanced reader copy of it in, and I am so glad she did.  In fact, I can’t wait until the book comes out so I can put it in our staff recommendations shelving unit.  But, aside from the cover and title, there were a few other things that drew me in: a gang of child pickpocketers, the 1960’s setting, and the Marseille metropolitan area.  Was there ever another book that so focused on all of my niches?

Okay, so, actual review now.  The narration.  It pulls you in immediately.  You yourself are an observer, as well as the narrator, and the narrator is so.  Dang.  Funny.  Because it’s in third person perspective, we get more details about Charlie, and how and when those details change, which gives us insight as to how his character will progress, and how he develops more into his own self rather than just being the son of a politician.

And then there’s Amir, whom I lovingly refer to as my pickpocketing son, who winds up being Charlie’s best friend.  Through him, Charlie’s introduced to the world of pickpocketing and deception–and it’s at this moment where I can safely say that Meloy has done his research.  And, additionally through him, Charlie is introduced to the whiz mob, a group of kids on their own who think of themselves as a modern-day Robin Hood.  They don’t go after any poor or down-on-his-luck chump, they go after the lawyers, the politicians, the men who can truly spare a hundred bucks or two.

And it’s in this way that Meloy discusses classism: first, we have Charlie, the son of an actress and a diplomat; second, we have Amir and the whiz mob, who’ve been separated from their families and quite literally need money in order to survive.  Charlie’s enamored by their lifestyle, though to them, it’s not necessarily a lifestyle–it’s a necessity.  Charlie wants to leave behind his hoity toity way of life, but it’s his surplus-filled life that the whiz mob craves.  A very good  move and discussion on Meloy’s part, in my opinion.

Another thing that I absolutely adored about this book were the drawings.  Granted, I had an ARC, so many of the drawings weren’t yet available.  Though I must say that I plan on buying a copy when it comes out just so that I can see the rest of the artwork.  The drawings were whimsical, fun, and perfect for the tone of the book.  Ellis did a great job here.

Ultimately, this book was probably one of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time.  I was on the edge of my seat at times, I felt pained when Charlie felt pained, and by the end of the book, I felt as though I was a part of the whiz mob the whole time.

The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract

Rating: ★★★

Genre: Nonfiction, politics

Medium: Paperback

Synopsis: In this translation of one of Rousseau’s most well-known political nonfictions, Rousseau explains how society as we know it has come to be this way, and how he believes he can make things equal and better for the human race.  In this book, his thoughts on how social inequality came to be through society, politics, and agriculture are also included.

Review: I’m not gonna lie.  When I first started this, I asked my French friend who was majoring in political science what she thought about Rousseau.  Her response was something along the lines of “I hate him because he’s for everything I’m against.”  Wow.  Harsh words.  Still, I plodded through, because I felt that reading some political science would make me seem smarter and be smarter.

However, I’d also like to bring up the fact that this isn’t the original text, on account of it being a translation.  One thing I really appreciated about this edition was that the translator explained how and why he chose this specific translation (though I’m sure there are many more translations out there now that like…what, 50 years since the publication of this edition has passed?), and included all of the notes, prologues, and epilogues.  Knowing why he chose this particular translation helped me understand the text at a very fundamental and basic level, which is perfect because I’ve never read political science books before.  So, those extra tidbits were highly appreciated.

But for the text itself…dang.  I mean, this isn’t exactly a novel here, so it’s not like I can critique theme, main ideas, plot points, or rave about them.  And it’s a subject I’m not familiar with, so I don’t know exactly how Rousseau holds up against other political philosophers or how his ideas are reflective of the time period in which he lived.  Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to convey my thoughts.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, my friend was pretty obvious in her dislike for Rousseau.  At first, I didn’t totally understand why–his ideas were spot on, questioned the right things, explained how inequalities came to be in a way that was understandable (though a bit boring for someone not familiar with the subject).  And then it happened.  His proposed solutions to fix these problems were a little 1984-esque, though the text obviously predates Orwell’s work.

Granted, he doesn’t exactly express the want for a Big Brother, but when he begins going to town about how voting should work in his ideal society…yike.  I mean, I know that in the latest election in America, both sides of the bipartisanship we have here were shaking their heads saying, “Well, they didn’t know any better…”  Rousseau thinks the same way, except he doesn’t exactly give the citizens of his proposed society the option to “not know any better.”  He eliminates individual thought on who the best leader of a country would be.  Don’t get me wrong, regardless of who you vote for, I’m going to assume it’s because you honestly think that they’re the best person to run the country.  Rousseau sees no need for this, so long as there’s a representative-like figure to tell you who the best person to run the country would be.

Following this, he also discusses ideological slavery.  At first, I agreed with what he said, in that he asks questions like “Are we truly free when we’re so eager to please others?  Are we still [ideological] slaves under the guise of being free?”  Like, okay, yeah, these are good questions to think about, even a hundred years later.  Because dang, with all that advertising going on and all those thinkpieces being published, how can we ever have an individual and independent thought that’s free from being constantly inundated by all of these external sources?  But then he delves into the question of whether it’s better to be “free” when really we’re still [ideological] slaves, or whether it’s simply better to just be [ideological] slaves, knowing that we’ll never be free.  And then he gets into some sort of human nature versus nurture, and continues this conversation for quite a while.

Additionally, I feel it worthy to note that when he discusses ideological slavery, Rousseau simply just uses the word “slavery.”  Which, don’t get me wrong, I know that he’s using the very literal definition, but I think we can all admit that there’s a racial connotation to it, and that it’d probably be best to continue saying ‘ideological slavery’ even if it might get a bit redundant.  But, like I said earlier, I read a translation, so this might be partly the translator’s fault.

Overall, I’m glad I read this, and I do feel that Rousseau asks a lot of really good, really thought-provoking questions.  However, I just can’t agree with his proposed ideal society, or his solutions to the problems that exist.  Ultimately, it’s definitely worth reading if you like philosophy and political science books.

The Night Manager by John le Carré

The Night Manager

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Spy literature

Medium: Paperback

Synopsis: Richard Onslow Roper is the worst man in the world.  Under the guise as a farm seller, he secretly sells and exchanges weapons and other notorious black market.  Enter Leonard Burr.  Leonard detests Richard, and will do anything to stop him–including recruiting veteran Jonathan Pine, a hotelier whose lover was just beaten to death by Roper’s men.  Moved by vengeance, Jonathan Pine accepts his new life as a spy and enters a world full of deception, anger, and guns.

Review: I’ll come up front and say it at the beginning of this review: I couldn’t watch the final episode of The Night Manager because I was too stressed out about it, so I went out and purchased and read the book before finishing the television series.  And I’m so glad I did.

As always, the book has much more info that the series, but I was actually rather pleased to spot the differences.  In the series, the locations and characters have been updated for a more modern take on the world–as you can guess, the book is just as political as the television series, if not more.  Because of that, I learned quite a bit about which countries didn’t like other countries, and what the political wartime world looked like at the time.

And, as always, we were granted more insight into the characters.  We learn more about Jed and her behaviors, and just why Jonathan is so entranced by her.  Heck, I’m entranced by her.

The Night Manager is actually the first spy thriller I’ve read and watched.  So not knowing about what the common tropes are aside from lots of guns, spying, and getting the girl at the end, my review is certainly gong to come off as a bit amateurish.  Still, I found The Night  Manager to be hugely entertaining, a book that you’d sometimes have to pry out of my hands.  Because of this, I’d have to say that regardless that it’s my first spy thriller, I really, truly enjoyed this, and didn’t feel inundated with the sorts of (neutral) criticisms that run through my head when reading lots from the same genre.  I’d definitely recommend this to anybody who wanted something riveting, secret, and sometimes hap-hazardous on the characters’ parts.

Nile Crossing by Katy Beebe, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

Nile Crossing

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Historical fictionChildren’s Literature

Medium: ARC, paperback

Synopsis: Khepri wakes up one day, and is ambushed by both excitement and nervousness.  Used to going fishing with his father, his day is going to be a little different: he’s going to school.

Review: This book was enjoyable to read, and I was surprised at myself for knowing so little about the schools of other cultures and time periods.  The author, who sports a love for Egyptology, was willing to give us some insight as to just how this stressful and thrilling day is in ancient Egypt.

By providing the audience with more awareness, we are better able to understand the differences between cultures, history, and their schools.  For instance, what tools did students use?  How did they get to school?  What time do they wake up for school?  Did they have to go far?  These are the sorts of questions that Beebe answers.

Additionally, I was impressed by the last few pages in which Beebe presents additional facts and further reading for both children and their parents.  This is a book I’m highly considering purchasing for my mother, a kindergarten teacher, when it comes out.

The Call of the Swamp by Davide Cali, illustrated by Marco Somà

The Call of the Swamp

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: FictionChildren’s Literature

Medium: ARC, paperback

Synopsis: Boris is normal.  He goes to school, rides his bike, and eats with his family.  Until one day, he stumbles upon a swamp.  And the swamp feels more right to him than his home ever did…so where does he truly belong?

Review: I am so glad to have gotten my greedy little hands on this advanced reader copy.  I’ve never been so enamored by a children’s book.  The drawings, the content, the axolotl???  I’m in love.  I’m definitely going to purchase this once it comes out in September.

This book has enraptured me for many reasons, but the main one is certainly because Boris is between two places, two cultures–essentially, he is in la mestiza, a place coined by Gloria Anzaldua.  Sorry to get super analytical in this review, but this is one of my favorite theoretical terms!  Boris is from the swamp, but he grows up as a regular boy.  But when he rediscovers the swamp, though it feels right, it doesn’t feel quite right, because he’s been socialized as a boy.  Because of this, he’s placed in la mestiza, a place in between his two homes, having been socialized by both.

Many are forced to think of themselves as one thing or another–as a member of your culture, or as a member of your country.  For Gloria Anzaldua, la mestiza was a place between Texas and Mexico, where she was constantly influenced by both cultures, unable to decide exactly where she belonged.  For Boris, he’s between his house and the swamp.

As his parents send him supportive letters, hoping he’s happy, he’s out discovering himself.  Boris wonders how he can fit into both places at once, or how to even properly and fully fit into one place.  But it’s his journey of finding an answer that truly makes this story so endearing and enriching.  I highly suggest this book for anyone struggling with identity, and for any parent of an adopted child.  You will not regret it.

What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross

What Was Mine

Rating: ★★★1/2

Genre: Fiction

Medium: Paperback

Synopsis: All Lucy wants is a baby.  And one day, she finds one.  All alone in a shopping cart in Ikea, Natalie is ripe for the taking.  Twenty years down the line, Natalie–now Mia–is still unaware of her mother’s crime.  In a thrilling novel about what it means to be a mother, follow both the new family and the severed one as they deal with the trials and tribulations about kidnapping and discovering who they really are.

Review: This book was so intriguing to me.  I’ve only ever been a daughter–never a mother in any way, shape, or form–so I’ve never learned the heartbreak of potentially never being able to have a child, or potentially having my child taken from me.  However, having only ever been a child, this book raised questions to me that I still haven’t found the answer for:  What if my mom wasn’t really my mom?  Would I want to meet my birth mom?  How betrayed would I feel, and how would I react?  Of course, I love my mom to pieces so knowing that I’m (hopefully) not a kidnapped child, I’d love to imagine that my reaction to all of that possibly happening would be fairly positive.

That being said, if it really turned out that I was kidnapped, I think my reaction would be similar to Mia’s, and that’s what makes this book so realistic.  While it slightly borders on the it’s-a-book-so-it-works and the there’s-a-pretty-good-explanation line, the reactions are genuine.  There’s the mother’s grief, the mom’s joy, and the daughter’s loss of a life that was never hers.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the shifting perspectives.  I don’t think this type of book could be written in any other way, and it’s worth noting tha tit’s not just the main characters it switches between: it’s the Ikea worker, it’s the ex-husband, it’s the aunt, it’s the new boyfriend as well.  All of these external points of view shed new lights on our characters, and it’s well worth it.

Another thing I thought was great was the inclusion of Chinese culture.  Mia’s nanny growing up is a Chinese woman she calls Ayi.  Through Ayi, or Wendy (as is her American name), we see a new perspective on what it means to be a mother, and what it means to be a mother from a different culture.  This added copious amounts of outside perspective to the story, and it was one I appreciated greatly.

Ultimately, this book was an enjoyable read, and it’s a book I’ll be glad to share with others.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

The Last Lecture

Rating: ★★★1/2

Genre: Memoir

Medium: Hardback

Synopsis: After giving his famous last lecture, Randy Pausch decided that he had a little more to say.  He plans on leaving his wife and children behind when he eventually dies of pancreatic cancer, one of the last curable cancers there is.  In this book, he gives guidelines, pieces of advice, and life stories.  Pausch iterates that this book isn’t one about him dying–it’s about him living.

Review: To any of you about to read this book, let me say this first: don’t read this too fast.  Despite how small it is, it’s actually filled with (I think?) about 50 chapters on various subjects from his family, his childhood, and his dreams.  You’ll want to only read a couple chapters a night–that way, you’ll get the full extent of what he has to say.

If I had the opportunity to meet Pausch, I think I would immediately respect him.  His ideas and the way he puts them is concise and had such good intent.  However, I must be honest with you–there’s a definite divide between him and millennials.  This made me a little bit less receptive to some of what he was saying (read: I didn’t always agree with him), but I can’t deny that the main ideas of what he said resonated with me.

He’s hugely positive, and always looking for ways to be an active participant in his own life.  He reaches out to others, works hard to make his dreams come true, and uses slightly unorthodox methods in order to solve his problems.

My aunt urged me to read this book (which I obviously did).  Ultimately, I’m glad that I did.  I think I’m a little more wise and a little more thankful now.