Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Layla Reviews: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Published by Crown BYR/Random House
Publish Date: March 8, 2016

Source: Publisher
Find It: Goodreads / Amazon 

Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.

He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.

Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living. 

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Layla's Thoughts: Told from three points of view, this book has the melancholy feel of a small town in the South. Dill, Travis, and Lydia-though very different in terms of opinions and wealth-all three are the best of friends in the sweetest of ways. 

Dill's struggle in finding his faith and the real meaning of a family name is gorgeously heartbreaking, and Travis' love of books and literature, as well as the struggles that he goes through, are hopeful. Lydia knows what she is to do in life, but she worries for her friends, who have no such plans. 

All three characters are so well written, it was impossible not to get attached. At one point, I was reading it in the car, and I began to cry profusely to the alarm of my father. Jeff Zentner did an absolutely marvelous job of writing a small town mentality, and the entire book grips your soul. This book is a great one to curl up on a stormy day in summer and down in one go. 


Monday, September 19, 2016

Reading Without Walls Blog Tour with Gene Leun Yang's Secret Coders + Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers by MK Reed

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes
Series: Secret Coders #1
Published by First Second
Publish Date: September 29, 2015

Source: Publisher
Find it here:  Goodreads / Amazon 

Welcome to Stately Academy, a school which is just crawling with mysteries to be solved! The founder of the school left many clues and puzzles to challenge his enterprising students. Using their wits and their growing prowess with coding, Hopper and her friend Eni are going to solve the mystery of Stately Academy no matter what it takes!

From graphic novel superstar (and high school computer programming teacher) Gene Luen Yang comes a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic programming instruction with a page-turning mystery plot!
 (from Goodreads) 

When I first saw this STEM-based comic series that featured coding, I knew that it had the potential to be right fit for my family. The very second we unpackaged this book, my 1o-year-old boy picked it up, read it, and declared that he LOVED it. He said THIS IS SO GOOD! and then moved immediately to the second book in the series. As a mom, that is exactly the thing that I want for my kids, no matter what the book: I want to see them excited about what they're reading, period. When I see that it has great content and that they continue with the reading, I know that this is something that I will put my support behind and recommend to other parents and to schools out there. 

I personally loved Secret Coders too! Hopper is new to Stately Academy, but she doesn't love it. It's weird and creepy. Along with her friend Eni, Hopper realizes that all of these weird things are actually clues to something else. Using binary and coding, these two friends solve clue after clue to figure out the secrets behind this unusual school. Along the way, the book pauses here and there to see if readers can use the skills they've been taught by the characters. It is not boring. It does not read like a textbook. This isn't dry reading. It's actually fun and I was able to learn these concepts (which I had previous found a bit complicated) along with my kids (who did not find them complicated at all). The book presents them in a way that pretty much anyone can understand, with a story that is fun and engaging characters. I love Hopper and Eni - the way they have fun guy-girl-friendship banter just like young people do. There is no romance here, just fun friendship, which is completely appropriate for this type of story and book. 

When both Jack and I reached the end, we IMMEDIATELY put the book down and grabbed the second book. We both believe that readers will be invested enough in Secret Coders to do the same. 

Secret Coders: Paths & Portals by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes 
Series: Secret Coders #2
Published by First Second
Publish Date: August 30, 2016

Source: Publisher
Find it here:  Goodreads / Amazon 

There's something lurking beneath the surface of Stately Academy—literally. In a secret underground classroom Hopper, Eni, and Josh discover that the campus was once home to the Bee School, an institute where teachers, students, and robots worked together to unravel the mysteries of coding. Hopper and her friends are eager to follow in this tradition and become top-rate coders. But why are Principal Dean and the rugby team suddenly so interested in their extracurricular activities?

From graphic novel superstar (and high school computer programming teacher) Gene Luen Yang comes the second volume of Secret Coders, Paths & Portals, a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic programming instruction with a page-turning mystery plot!
 (excerpt from Goodreads) 

Secret Coders: Paths & Portals picks up immediately after the end of the first book. Hopper and Eni - along with their friend Josh - are still solving clues around the very odd Stately Academy. They're now working along with the school janitor, Mr. Bee. In the first book, we thought Mr. Bee was just a mean old member of the school staff, but in this installment, we find out that there is actually way more to Mr. Bee's story! There is also way more going on at, er, under Stately Academy. This time the friends are using Logo computer programming to work through some tricky situations. 

For me, computer programming and coding is tough. I've always avoided it! But my 10-year-old loves it. He loved this book and had no trouble at all with the coding used here. The great thing is that: I could do it too! So: once again, I believe that the creators of this series have broken down something that has the potential to be complicated (like binary)...and they've made it accessible to everyone, all ages, and even people of all interests. 

I believe that this is probably their mission with incorporating STEM into these comic books. And I love it. The story and these characters are fun and have engaging relationships that young kids will relate to, and by reading these books the kids are adding STEM into their reading without making it a big deal. I love that. 

Highly recommended. Jack and I (and my girls, by the way) are eagerly anticipating the release of the next book in early 2017 and will continue with this series as far as it goes. 

Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers by MK Reed and Joe Flood 
Series: Science Comics
Published by First Second
Publish Date: March 29, 2016

Source: Publisher
Find it here:  Goodreads / Amazon 

Every volume of Science Comics offers a complete introduction to a particular topic--dinosaurs, coral reefs, the solar system, volcanoes, bats, flying machines, and more. These gorgeously illustrated graphic novels offer wildly entertaining views of their subjects. Whether you're a fourth grader doing a natural science unit at school or a thirty-year-old with a secret passion for airplanes, these books are for you!

This volume: in Dinosaurs, learn all about the history of paleontology! This fascinating look at dinosaur science covers the last 150 years of dinosaur hunting, and illuminates how our ideas about dinosaurs have changed--and continue to change.
 (from Goodreads) 

This book really surprised me! In looking at this cover, I expected an interesting dinosaur book. Who doesn't love dinosaurs, right? But when I looked inside, I was floored. Not only is the art beautiful and interesting to look at on every single page, but there is so much information in this book. The book is written in a linear fashion, bringing readers up-to-date on the discovery of dinosaur skeletons and the documentation of fossils by scientists (and also by regular people in the early days, before they even knew what they were discovering exactly). There is humor as well as history in this book, and it made me laugh to read how the discovery of dinosaurs unfolded. There is some background on notable paleontologists, which is interesting. There are also quite a few very cool charts, like a representation of the different eras, how a cat is related to a bird, how the different dinosaurs are related to one another, a representation of Marsh's discoveries vs. Cope's discoveries - and several more. The pages are colorful and shiny, the art is beautiful, and I found myself looking at each page for A LONG TIME. It took me a while to go through this book. 

The thing about this book is: I think younger readers will flip through or read and love the book and be very satisfied while they learn some things. And I believe that they'll return to this book over and over. But I also believe that older readers will take this same book and spend more time on it because it is written in a way that the ones that have an interest in paleontology and dinosaurs will study everything on every page, and they'll refer back to the pages before it, and they'll think back on the things that they know, and they'll discuss with other people the things that they find in this book. At least, that is my own experience with reading this book with my family. I have twin 13-year-old daughters that eat, breathe, and sleep dinosaurs and are wildly interested in paleontology, to the point of potentially pursuing a career in this field one day. We, as a family, know a few things about what is written in this book because we've studied it so much. But at the same time, we learned so much here too! I think that my girls initially thought that the book was for younger readers when they saw the cover, but realized upon opening it that this book is for older readers as well. 

This book is highly recommended, and this is another series that we will be following up on and reading in its entirety. Without a doubt this is a STEM book and it is incredibly cool. I think that young people (and big kids like myself) will flock to it if given the chance and if they realize that it is written for a broad spectrum of ages. 

As a family of homeschoolers, we are all about STEM in the books that we read and we love incorporating these types of media into our schooling. I want these books on my bookshelf. But honestly, I'm not always aware of them! I'm so excited to have found out about Gene Luen Yang's Reading Without Walls Challenge and his love of STEM + comics. Both STEM and comics are topics that are big, huge deals in my home as my daughters are graphic artists and comic designers, and as my son is planning a STEM-related career. We know that these topics are huge in so many other homes as well, and we know that they will be as more homes find out about STEM and what it can do for them and society and community and culture as a whole. We are excited about what Gen Luen Yang is doing here and are thrilled to be a small part of promoting these platforms. To see a list of some great STEM-inclusive comics, click here. You can also check out the Reading Without Walls Blog Tour on these websites and dates: 

August 31: Colby at Sharp Read
September 1: Jess at Reading Nook Reviews
September 2: Samantha at Forest of Words and Pages
September 5: Jennifer at YA Book Nerd
September 6: Maria at Maria's Mélange
September 7: Gigi at Late Bloomer's Book Blog
September 8: Jen at Starry Eyed Revue
September 9: Cheyenne at The Hollow Cupboards
September 12: Anya at On Starships and Dragonwings
September 13: April at Good Books and Good Wine
September 14: Cindy at Charting by the Stars
September 15: Erica at The Book Cellar
September 16: Sandie at Teen Lit Rocks
September 19: Asheley at Into the Hall of Books
September 20: Daphne at Gone Pecan
September 21Mary Ann at Great Kids Books
September 22: Kathy at The Brain Lair
September 23: Michelle & Leslie at Undeniably (Book) Nerdy
September 26Laurie at Reader Girls
September 27: Margie at Librarian's Quest
September 28Victoria at Art, Books, & Coffee
September 29Cee at The Novel Hermit
September 30: Amanda at Forever Young Adult

We're holding our breath for more of the books on the list from Gene Luen Yang's website . As a family and as a group of readers and comic makers, THIS IS OUR JAM. We all - my kids and I - recommend these three titles to readers and schools and classrooms alike. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Review | This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

This Raging Light by Estelle Laure
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Publish Date: December 22, 2015

Source: Publisher
Find it here:  Goodreads / Amazon 

Can the best thing happen at the worst time?

Her dad went crazy. Her mom left town. She has bills to pay and a little sister to look after. Now is not the time for level-headed seventeen-year-old Lucille to fall in love. But love—messy, inconvenient love—is what she's about to experience when she falls for Digby Jones, her best friend's brother.

This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

My ThoughtsThis Raging Light is the story of Lucille and Wren, sisters that have been left behind by a father that has "gone crazy" and is living in a group home environment for recovery and a mother that just...left. Lucille and Wren have no clue whether or not their mother is coming back. Older sister Lucille is struggling to keep it together without other people finding out that they're living all alone. They fear that if someone finds out, they'll be separated and sent away. 

The book begins on Wren's first day of fourth grade. Lucille struggles to get both herself and Wren fed, dressed, and walked to school on time - there are nine blocks between Wren's school and her own high school. As the story continues and bills begin to pile up, Lucille has to get a job, forcing her to figure out childcare for her younger sister. She also has to cleverly navigate important things like parent-teacher conferences, answering the well-meaning questions of friends' parents and neighbors on her mother's whereabouts, and make sure that she remembers which lies are told to which person. Lucille also has to stretch her quickly dwindling money and grocery stash.

Basically Lucille has to be an adult while also dealing with everything that a high schooler normally deals with: homework, peer pressure, maintaining friendship, and first love.

Lucille is fortunate enough to have Eden, her best friend, so she can talk about the things that are weighing heavily on her. Eden's twin brother Digby knows everything too. Otherwise, she is careful about who she tells: every person that knows her story is a threat to her and Wren, even the people that she loves. She must guard her secret close to her heart.

Things I loved about the book:

1. I LOVE the Lucille + Wren main plot line. I felt deeply connected and invested here. I think much of this had to do with some of the detailing that the author included and it couldn't hurt that I'm a mother. This is, in my opinion, the resounding strength of this book.

2. Sibling relationships. Lucille and Wren are fiercely loyal and loving, and it is clear that they are a team above all else. I love that. Also, Lucille's BFF Eden + her twin brother Digby have a great sibling relationship with loyalty above all else. Two great sibling relationships in one book? Yes please!

Things that weren't my favorite about this book:

1. There are several subplots in this book thrown into the mix that, along with the main plot, felt like they were competing for my attention.

2. Part of the main point of this story is that Lucille's "falling in love" comes at a terrible time. Lucille's huge crush on Digby develops into a relationship, but Digby has a girlfriend. Now, I really love Digby as a character-he's a huge help to Lucille and even little Wren-and I know for a fact that some high school boys act in the same way that he does (girlfriend with another girl on the side), but that does not make reading about this romance any less stressful. It is meant to be swoony and there is resolution, but I admit to holding my breath throughout the story where the romance is concerned.

3. The author has a unique writing style that seems to be a mixture of short-phrases, poetic prose, straight-up narrative. I like unique writing styles. In this case, however, the poetic style along with the multiple subplots just felt cumbersome to me, especially in the second half. Simply put: it was hard to concentrate on the language with all of the stuff going on.

The more I think about this main plot line with Lucille and Wren, the more I like it. The strength of these two main characters is astounding under the stresses that they carried, and that is what I want to take away from this story more than anything else. I know that Lucille made some poor decisions, but I know that I wouldn't have made all perfect decisions either in her situation. I'm all on board to read the companion sequel (But Then I Came Back), scheduled for release in April 2017.

Audiobook Notes: The audiobook format of This Raging Light is 5 hours, 36 minutes, Unabridged, and published by Recorded books. This is
 is a fairly-quick read in print. Even so, I added the audiobook to my read for the listening experience. It is narrated by Sandy Rustin, who did a nice job and provides a good listening experience for this novel. However, I did find myself reading over this audiobook so that I ended up pausing it in several places to read ahead. Either the story was compelling enough to read a little quicker than the audio or it wasn't holding my attention as much as the print copy was. Still, I would recommend the audiobook version without hesitation. 


This Raging Light will appeal to fans of:

YA Contemporary with Issues
Romance: It's complicated. 
Character driven plot
Strong sibling relationships 

This Raging Light by Estelle Laure
is currently available for purchase.


Friday, September 2, 2016

Review | First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Series: Chicago Stars #8
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks

Publish Date: August 23, 2016

Source: Publisher
Find it here:  Goodreads / Amazon 

A star quarterback and a feisty detective play for keeps in this sporty, sexy, sassy novel—a long-awaited new entry in the beloved, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author’s fan-favorite Chicago Stars football series.

Piper Dove is a woman with a dream—to become the best detective in the city of Chicago. First job? Trail former Chicago Stars quarterback, Cooper Graham. Problem? Graham’s spotted her, and he’s not happy. 

Which is why a good detective needs to think on her feet. “The fact is...I’m your stalker. Not full-out barmy. Just...mildly unhinged.”

Piper soon finds herself working for Graham himself, although not as the bodyguard he refuses to admit he so desperately needs. Instead, he’s hired her to keep an eye on the employees at his exclusive new nightclub. But Coop’s life might be in danger, and Piper’s determined to protect him, whether he wants it or not. (Hint: Not!) If only she weren’t also dealing with a bevy of Middle Eastern princesses, a Pakistani servant girl yearning for freedom, a teenager who just wants to fit in, and an elderly neighbor demanding Piper find her very dead husband.

And then there’s Cooper Graham himself, a legendary sports hero who always gets what he wants—even if what he wants is a feisty detective hell bent on proving she’s as tough as he is. 

From the bustling streets of Chicago to a windswept lighthouse on Lake Superior to the glistening waters of Biscayne Bay, two people who can’t stand to lose will test themselves and each other to discover what matters most. 

First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

My Thoughts: I finished this book about a week ago and I can't stop thinking about it. Now that I have finally been introduced to Susan Elizabeth Phillips and the Chicago Stars Series, I need more now. I'm desperate to go back and start this series from the beginning. Why did I wait so long to read her stuff? 

Detective Piper Dove is investigating former Chicago Stars quarterback Cooper Graham when he notices her and calls her out. With her cover blown early in her investigation and Cooper annoyed with her, Piper assumes that her career is over. But Cooper ends up hiring her to work for him: she is to investigate the employees at his new nightclub because he thinks one of them may be stealing from the business. While she works, she recognizes Cooper's need for a bodyguard and even though he refuses, she takes it upon herself to do her best to protect him. 

Everything is shenanigans. 

I was so, so surprised by this book, and I mean that in the best of ways. Having never read anything by this author before, I sort-of expected just a romance. And there is romance in here. But this is really so much more than that. First of all, this book is funny. The entire way through. I smiled and chuckled and smiled some more, which kept me turning the pages. My grin was goofy at the ending (which I LOVED) and then I was sad that the book was over. (Which is why I'm craving more of this series like it is the best kind of chocolate ice cream.) 

Piper as a character is awesome. She is feisty and impulsive and unsure of herself in some ways. But I love that in other ways, she knows exactly what she wants. She is also funny and delivers loads of snark. She and Cooper butt heads often and their banter is so funny. They have a believable chemistry that is built on both of them trying so hard not to be attracted to and care about the other one. 

Cooper is a great opposite to Piper. He's sure of himself, but not overly cocky. He is an athlete but more than sports, he loves his rooftop urban garden where he grows vegetables. He's almost as funny as Piper and he tosses sarcastic comments and snark right back to her. 

They're so great. 

This book also has some side stories that I loved. Piper makes two new friends during the course of the story that steal my heart: Jada and Faiza. These young women each have their own relationships with Piper that are rich and developed; their plots give just enough weight to the book without making it heavy while also helping Piper develop as a character and as an investigator. These side stories also help progress the relationship between Piper and Cooper because he is, of course, involved and the two have to work together (shenanigans!) with things which means more laughs and, later, some swoons for us. I love the secondary characters, the majority of whom are friends of Piper and Cooper. I assume I would recognize at least some of them if I had read the previous books, but they are all new to me since I am new to the series. 

**Here's the thing: I am just fine after reading this one book. It reads well as a standalone. I do not have to pick up any of the other books or do any research to understand a single thing in here. BUT! the way this author's long-time fans say that this one is "classic Susan Elizabeth Phillips" ensures that this is just the first one of her books that I will read. I had way too much fun reading this story to stop now. 

I recommend First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips for everybody, doggone it. Walk, skip, run to the bookstore and get this one now. 


First Star I See Tonight will appeal to fans of:

Contemporary Fiction with Romance
Romance: No triangle. 
Setting: Chicago, IL
Companion series

First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
is currently available for purchase.


If you're like me and need to start the Chicago Stars Series: