Monday, March 30, 2015

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm is an adorable book for middle grade readers about an eleven-year-old girl named Ellie who suddenly becomes infatuated with science after spending more time with her grandfather, Melvin. The interesting thing is that her grandfather, who is a world famous scientist with two PhDs (and his own fan club in Finland), has made a great discovery- the cure for aging. This has given him the appearance of a fourteen-year-old boy and he has come to live with Ellie and her mother.

As Ellie gets to really know her grandfather, she also learns why science is so important to him and how interesting it actually can be. Melvin is shocked to discover that Ellie's science knowledge is so lacking.

"If this country spent half as much time on science education as cheering some idiot with a ball, you'd know who Jonas Salk is."

Except that she doesn't. She also doesn't know about Robert Oppenheimer, Marie Curie, Louis Pasture or Isaac Newton. As he teaches her about these scientists' great contributions to mankind, he explains why scientists are so important.

"Average people just give up at the obstacles we face every day. Scientists fail again and again and again. Sometimes for our whole lives. But we don't give up because we want to solve the puzzle."

And he also encourages her. He never doubts that she is capable of great things. He sees something special in her and she begins to see it as well.

"Do you think I'll ever win a Nobel?" I ask.
"Of course you will,'' he says without a second's hesitation.

This is why I love this book. It brings an excitement and fun to science for a young girl and then immediately tells her she can go out and discover something of her own. From the very first chapter all the way to the cute, funny ending, this book made me happy. It was smart and also easily accessible for upper- elementary age readers. I love that it encourages an interest in science, even for people who may not know how much they will love it. I can't wait for my kids to read this book and I hope you'll read it and share it as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

The name Sara Gruen will strike a familiar chord for those of you who read Water for Elephants. I really enjoyed that book, but somehow I never got around to reading her second, Ape House, though I've heard wonderful things about it. I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to preview her latest novel, At the Water's Edge, especially because I think it may be her best yet.

Maddie Hyde is a young woman in Philadelphia high society whose husband, Ellis, has recently been financially cut off by his father. Ellis and his best friend Hank convince her that this is the perfect time to travel to the Scottish Highlands in search of the famous Loch Ness Monster. A running joke between them, they've talked for so long of finding the mysterious species, but Maddie is shocked to discover that this time they are serious. Her biggest objection is that there is a war on- World War II- and sea travel is highly dangerous. While difficult and likely ill-fated, this trip allows Maddie the opportunity to discover so much about herself and the people she thinks she knows.

This was a wonderful book and Gruen does a lovely job of telling Maddie's story while weaving in details about the horrors of war. Self-discovery is crucial in all of our lives, even when it is painful and through Maddie we are allowed a partner down the path. Fortunately, this is also done with quite a lot of entertainment value. Gruen's characters are well-written and concrete. You know a character is done well when you really hate him or her. The writing is also well done and the dialect is not too heavy handed, there is just the right amount to add a bit of flavor. This is the kind of book, that once I was able to sit and get a good start, I couldn't put it down. I had to force myself to go to bed at night. I really enjoyed this book and I hope you will as well.

And now for my favorite line in the book:

...monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Art of Arranging Flowers by Lynne Branard

After reading Garden Spells and First Frost, a book about flowers seemed like a natural step. Ruby Jewell (great name!) has been a florist for more than twenty years and she has an almost Waverly-like ability to know which flowers should go together to best serve the person receiving or purchasing the arrangement. She can add just the right stems and colors to make someone feel confident or peaceful or even to help ease the effects of cancer treatments. The residents of the small town of Creekside credit Ruby for bringing couples together and helping them find love. What Ruby needs, they all think, is to help herself it the same way she has helped so many of them. Single and without any living relatives, Ruby has found her own family in the friends she gathers like her bouquets. She has Nora and Jimmy, the two people who work in her flower shop, and she meets Will, a ten-year-old boy who comes to her looking for part-time work. Will has lost his mother and has just come to live with his grandmother. His story closely resembles Ruby's own and she takes him in for a few hours each day. The influence they will have on one another will be incalculable.

The greatest tipping point in Ruby's life was the death of her sister. She took to her bed, never wanting to live again. I was crazy. I was broken. I was dead. And then, one day I wasn't.  It was the sight of beautiful spring flowers outside her window that saved her. When she was able to get herself up, she used what saved her to help the people around her.

One of my favorite characters in this book is Captain Daniel Miller. He is a local celebrity, an astronaut and one of the few men to have walked on the moon. He befriends Ruby and their interactions are so touching. He tells her of the epiphany he had while on one of his missions to the moon and she explains how she knows just how to arrange her flowers. He shares with her so much wisdom, but my favorite was this:

"Sometimes we think there is supposed to be this great spiritual awakening that happens before we make a change in our lives. We expect some 'aha' moment, some beautiful enlightening experience to shape us into the people we want to be, but sometimes it just  happens from the circumstances in our lives that present themselves. We become who we are meant to be because of the things along our edges that pull us into existence."

This is a wonderful book that I truly had a difficult time putting down at night. The characters are sweet and I liked each of them.  If I have any criticism for this book it is that the time lapsed between each chapter was, at times, unclear. I especially appreciated the epilogue that allows the reader to see far into the characters' futures. One couldn't ask for a better ending.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

I love Sarah Addison Allen's books.  I love the magic and the sweetness contained in each one.  And I love that delicious food always plays such a big part of the story.  First Frost is her most recent novel and it did not disappoint.  As a sequel to Garden Spells, her first and my favorite of her books, I was worried it might not be able to stand up to the comparison.  I was very pleased that this was not the case.

In First Frost, we rejoin the Waverly sisters ten years after the events in Garden Spells.  As a result, this review is certain to contain spoilers for the first book, so please don't read on if you hate spoilers as much as I do.

Claire and Sydney have each married and are living happily with their new families.  Sydney has joined Henry on his dairy farm along with her daughter Bay.  Claire and Tyler are living in the Waverly house with their daughter Mariah.  Claire is no longer catering, but has begun a very successful candy business.  Her success, however, doesn't necessarily bring her happiness.  Claire finds herself working non-stop to fill the orders that keep pouring in to her website, even with help from a culinary student and her niece Bay.  Sydney now owns the salon where she first began styling hair when she moved back to Bascom.  I was thrilled to see that Evanelle is still with us in this book.  In Garden Spells, she is frequently described as frail so the fact that she has made it another ten years was a relief to me.  And I was thrilled to see that she is still up to her usual antics, giving away random things that people will desperately need in the not-too-distant future.  Fred is still living in her attic apartment and they are such lovely friends.  I adore their relationship.

In this new book, Claire's success attracts the attention of someone wishing to take his own slice of the cake, though it is completely undeserved.  This man is a swindler and he makes no excuse for what he is to the reader.  He has had a hard life of his own and while the reader certainly won't like him, it is difficult to harbor too much hostility toward him.

Bay is also undergoing her own growing pains.  While she has none of the expected, cliched concerns with fitting in in high school (one more reason to love her character), she does have the struggle of knowing that there are big things in store for her and her Waverly gift, but still having to wade through the high school years and all its trivialities.

I love that in this book we get to see more of the relationship between Sydney and Claire.  Sydney is a much stronger person, but she still needs a lot of help and reassurance from Claire.  She wishes sometimes things could be a little different:

It would be nice if, every once in a while, Claire could have a problem, too.  It wouldn't have to be a big one.  Just something small that would allow Sydney to show up triumphantly with a bottle of wine and say, "I know just what to do!"

I really enjoy Sarah Addison Allen's books and I love the Waverly sisters and their stories.  I look forward to each book that Allen releases and hope and hope for more.  I would be thrilled if she did a third Waverly Sisters novel, perhaps another ten years in the future as Mariah is becoming an adult, but nothing has been said about it.  I'll just have to keep hoping for now.