Review: The Crimson and The Frost by John Williams and James Colletti

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I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Crimson and The Frost
by John Williams and James Colletti

CreateSpace, 2013

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The verdict: A modern tale with classic holiday themes best suited for young readers who won’t overthink it.

Kids bored with the annual Christmas specials have something new to look at: The Crimson and the Frost. For whatever reason—maybe the cover art—I expected this book to target a slightly older audience, but it really fits best for middle-grade readers. That said, Williams and Colletti’s novel creates a Santa-Clause-meets-Polar-Express holiday adventure aimed at the gadget-loving, phone-tapping children of the twenty-first century. While the dialogue and conflicts are often trite, the authors mix in plenty of humor to reach their intended audience and keep the plot humming along. The storyline draws on traditional scenery with some creative twists, making a modern Christmas tale with classic themes and messages that parents won’t mind their kids reading.

A 17th-century whaling ship encounters the terrifying and magical King of Winter, but a mysterious and even more powerful force rises to oppose him. In the present day, young Billy Hampton competes for popularity by showing off techno gadgets from his dad’s company to his schoolmates. When Santa’s sleigh lands outside Billy’s window—driven by two bumbling elves who’d left home for a day of New England lobster fishing of all things—he sneakily stows away and winds up in Christmas Town. Along the journey, however, Billy accidentally loses the all-important jewel that powers the sleigh. Billy’s hosts try to hide the news and fix the problem themselves; meanwhile, Jack Frost seizes the opportunity to make his long-awaited move against the toy-building hamlet. While the elves and Billy seek help from Santa, Christmas Town goes on alert as Jack Frost lurks dangerously in the hills.

You see Billy, sometimes the decisions we make seem trivial to us, but can have a profound effect on others.

The light-hearted comedy definitely drives the story, and the elves’ personalities—either endearingly crotchety or hilariously hapless—play off each other to add some laughs. Billy’s tour of Christmas Town approaches something satirical even, which doesn’t mesh with the supposed gravity of the missing jewel and impending danger. Young Billy is a misfit in his own right, struggling to fit in among elves and ruining everything he touches, yet he rarely faces consequences. Even as Frost looms in the distance, the expected catastrophe never truly comes. A later reveal that losing the jewel wasn’t entirely Billy’s fault limits his character development, and the story never reaches the requisite gravitas for a power-packed moral. Still, Billy works toward an others-orientedness, which provides a necessary message for kids of any age. The authors present their take on the true meaning of Christmas directly from Santa’s mouth—a celebration of generosity and joy—but Santa’s own backstory and flashbacks are less interesting than the elves’ present-day conflicts. Critical readers will likely find some editorial issues and mid-section point-of-view shifts distracting, but a thrilling final act uplifts the story to show that even the most unlikely among us can be heroes. The Crimson and the Frost provides a kid-friendly, modern take on Christmas themes. Recommended for young readers looking for a fresh storyline with familiar holiday characters.

Be sure to check out John Williams’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

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Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Wonder
by R.J. Palacio

Knopf, 2012

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The verdict: A memorable portrait of human dignity—children’s literature that knows kids are smart enough to understand the world they live in.

So why add another review to the internet of this already smash-hit, critically-acclaimed novel? Wonder the movie is hitting theaters next month, in case people haven’t heard of it. I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the time to review it. That changed once I started. As a middle school teacher—as a human being—I must champion R.J. Palacio’s timeless message. Some books deserve the hype, and Wonder lives up to its name. Parents, your kids must read this book. Read this book with your kids even, then discuss it as a family. It’s rare to find literature that distills the complicated themes of life into such simple truths, and a novel that does so makes a powerful treasure.

Born with a facial deformity, 5th grader August Pullman enrolls in a private school to attend classes outside his home for the first time. While adults do their best to not notice and students make no secret of their curiosity and horror, Auggie wants nothing more than to just be ordinary. Soon Julian, a teacher’s pet when instructors are looking and a horrible bully when they’re not, leads a charge to ostracize the new student, and even the friends Auggie thinks he can count on wear masks of their own. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister Via struggles to adjust to a new high school and the pains of growing up. The point of view changes as the narrative unfolds, allowing the voices of Auggie’s classmates to intersect and craft a heart-wrenching tour of empathy and human dignity. Written at the middle-grade level, this beautiful coming-of-age story speaks to kids and adults alike.

“Like a lamb to the slaughter: Something that you say about someone who goes somewhere calmly, not knowing that something unpleasant is going to happen to them. I Googled it last night. That’s what I was thinking when Ms. Petosa called my name and suddenly it was my turn to talk.”

Told in short vignettes with a relatable middle school voice, Palacio’s novel captures the rapid change-of-subject and constant ups and downs of life from a kid’s point of view. Readers hear first from Auggie, then from his sister Via—whose section beautifully depicts the mess of compassion and resentment that comes with having a sibling who needs special care—and then from the perspectives of two of Auggie’s schoolmates, Via’s boyfriend, and her ex-best friend. Some expanded editions even include the ebook known as The Julian Chapter, giving voice to Auggie’s main tormentor.

Nothing about the story feels forced or contrived. Palacio builds her narrative on ordinary conflicts: shifting friend groups, arguments with parents, a sick family dog. Put together, the chapters touch on all aspects of identity from race and class to which lunch table a student belongs. At times I wanted a bit more pep in the plot; nothing terrifying or particularly unusual happens, especially when compared to other classic novels of its type. Yet the pedestrian tour of Auggie’s universe works to extend its humanity. While one might think Wonder is just a metaphor for how we all feel like the outcast sometimes, it bravely goes beyond that expectation by featuring themes about kindness and courage. The other narrators see just as much transformation as August does, and at times they’re even more likeable. Creative in form and content, Wonder is a twenty-first-century tale that bridges gaps across generations, fighting for every kid to take a turn in the spotlight. Recommended for middle school and high elementary school readers, especially for class or book reports.

Be sure to check out R.J. Palacio’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

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Review: Grace Group by Carrie Maldonado

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Grace Group
by Carrie Maldonado

eLectio, 2017

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The verdict: A deeper-than-usual inspirational romance that’s as much about living as it is about dying.

As a guy who doesn’t normally read romance, Grace Group caught my attention with its supernatural twist. The idea of angels coming to Earth and a character racing against the clock intrigued me, and seeing the content in some of Maldonado’s blog posts told me this would be more than just fluff. Yes, the story hinges on some romance-novel tropes: The male characters of interest are all gorgeous and near-perfect (even with a terminal illness), making them far too good for the stumbling and increasingly self-conscious female protagonist. Yet Maldonado’s message shines in her appeal to the human condition. What starts as a story about one woman soon becomes a story about all people, and readers of all ages and backgrounds can find points of connection with the narrative’s discussion of life and death.

Holly Matthews—workaholic corporate HR director, impatient, irritable, self-proclaimed loner with a crumbling romantic life—receives a terminal diagnosis at age 35. She reluctantly attends a support group for the dying and is surprised by the members’ camaraderie and frankness. Taking a challenge from the group, Holly begins volunteering at a local shelter—where she finds instant attraction to a hardworking (and possibly single) dad of an adorable little kid—and she develops a new openness and healthier sense of self. When a second potential love interest arrives at the grief group, Holly finds herself on the verge of death but with a sudden urge to keep living. After discovering her counselors are actually angels in disguise, Holly’s on a clock to turn from her selfish ways and instead experience the goodness of faith. Trying to unravel her tangled knot of romantic attraction and caught between her old habits and the hope of something better, Holly must reevaluate her priorities and squash the voice of temptation before her time on earth runs out.

“All of the people you are supposed to ‘touch,’ as you put it, are already in your life. Nothing happens by accident, Holly. You’ve always had everything you needed to live the perfect life for you. Your job is to go live it.”

After the first few chapters paint Holly in a miserable extreme, I expected to see a 180-degree, Ebenezer Scrooge-type transformation. Although Holly’s entrance to the grief group happens a little too easily, once she arrives, the angel characters are well crafted and engaging. Despite the enjoyable banter, however, at times the spiritual themes are a bit murky. “Accepting one’s purpose” becomes a catchphrase without full definition, and the angels describe a certain economy of good deeds combating evil intentions in a butterfly effect without much logic or demonstration. Holly’s prognosis is a universal one, though, and Maldonado certainly pulls no punches in exploring the ways life can get messy. Where the storyline starts as a thought exercise, it soon becomes a full-blown reality. Even the characters who aren’t aware of Holly’s condition appear in convenient places and manage to say what they mean, giving the story a parable feel focused on Holly’s internal conflict. Maldonado does a great job showing the confusion of life and the difficulty of deciding which impulses to follow without making the story itself confusing. Holly’s emotional turns are sharp enough to pull the reader along, and there’s a delightful amount of suspense considering readers know about Holly’s disease from the start. Grace Group is both a celebration of life and a challenge for those living it, demanding that every reader look in the mirror to discover what matters. Recommended for Christian book clubs and lovers of romance and inspirational fiction, especially those experiencing grief.

Be sure to check out Carrie Maldonado’s writing, visit her blog, or see more book reviews on this site.

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Review: The Einstein Prophecy by Robert Masello

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The Einstein Prophecy
by Robert Masello

47North, 2015

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The verdict: A predictable page-turner producing standard action fare, best suited for long flights or a fun vacation read.

From its back cover, The Einstein Prophecy sounded right up my alley: a WWII-era thriller involving an ancient curse and the world’s greatest scientific minds. If the title’s supposed to evoke some Da Vinci Code connection, however, Masello’s novel falls woefully short of its ambitions, but I’m not ready to completely discard it. Masello’s background as a journalist and previous novelist shows in his ability to technically piece together a story, and it does succeed as a quick, mindless thrill ride. Readers looking for complex characters and depth are less likely to enjoy the story as those just hoping for a lighthearted adventure, but the premise at least is enough to engage the imagination. I call it less profound revelation and more mindless entertainment.

On a top priority mission for the Office of Strategic Services, art-professor-turned-soldier Lucas Athan uncovers a stolen sarcophagus cloaked in secrecy and danger. When the US government calls to collect the object, the brilliant and beautiful Egyptian archaeologist Simone Rashid follows Lucas back to Princeton with a mysterious agenda of her own. Meanwhile at the university, the famed Professor Albert Einstein is in the middle of his own secretive work on the Manhattan Project, and as Professor Athan investigates the artifact, their storylines soon converge. The US military prioritizes uncovering the mysteries of the ossuary for reasons not fully explained, but its power soon becomes apparent. Strange and deadly happenings follow anyone too close to the project, and if that weren’t enough, the Nazis want the ossuary back to harness it as a weapon for evil. Set against the historical background of WWII, Masello unveils a fast-paced adventure back on American home soil.

“Even if one fights on the side of angels,” the professor continued, “it can feel as if one is doing the Devil’s work. For years now, every day, it is all bombs and bullets, guns and planes, tanks and cannons, death and more death…One must wonder, where will it all end?”

The many threads don’t always tie together, and some of the historical context, especially with Einstein’s war effort, feels forcefully inserted. Otherwise, though, the story unfolds as standard thriller fare true to genre. Inexplicably well-resourced characters with high-reaching government connections collaborate on a top-secret project to save the world. At times I enjoyed the fast pace and cross-town chase scenes, but the heroes lack the depth and gravitas to inject any personal conflict into the narrative. Lucas is barely affected by his horrific war injury while romantic sparks fly all-too-predictably with his female counterpart. The ossuary’s backstory provides the most intrigue, but the novel’s deeper themes about the nature of good and evil tumble through the air without sticking the landing. Einstein’s character ends up as more of a gimmick than necessary plot piece, and the mystery unfolds linearly with few surprises. It’s not exactly like readers are unsure how the Manhattan Project will turn out. Still, Masello knows the ingredients for an adventure story. Nazis, ancient evil, expendable side characters, and a beautiful woman join together for a novel that’s more joy ride than careful exploration. For readers who want easy thrills and don’t mind a serious suspension of disbelief, The Einstein Prophecy can still pass the time.

Be sure to check out Robert Masello’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

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Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman

Ember (Reprint Edition), 2014

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The verdict: Original, stirring, epic in scope and intimate in nature, Seraphina pushes beyond the frontiers of dragon fantasy tales.

A friend recommended this book and promised it wasn’t just a typical YA novel, and after diving into the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, I admit that I’m a fan of Seraphina. Hartman’s novel is a true labor of love, showing years of her dreaming and patience in the complex world building and thorough characterization. What struck me even more so was Hartman’s lyrical prose, creating a story that’s not just intelligent but actually beautiful. Seraphina’s musical talent features prominently in the novel, and the chapters themselves contain a sort of melody, adding layers of emotion to a plot already ripe with tension and conflict on many levels.

In a world where dragons can blend into society by taking human forms, Seraphina is a rare half-breed—and she closely guards the secret of her dragon lineage. Her position as a palace music assistant places her in view of numerous characters, including Princess Glisseldsa, sincere yet naive in her entitlements, and her cousin, Lucian Kiggs, a closeted intellectual betrothed to the wrong woman and not quite belonging in the regal world. When a murder in the royal court presents potentially disastrous implications for the long-standing peace treaty with the dragons, Seraphina finds herself teamed up with Kiggs to solve the mystery, and they find more commonalities than first meet the eye. In a strict caste system where the scaly beasts are forbidden to relate too closely with humans, Seraphina’s very existence risks upending the societal detente, but staying silent may be more dangerous still. It’s a story about dragons, royalty, and romantic adventure, but it’s also a story about identity, forgiveness, and the necessary challenge of loving oneself.

“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Hartman’s novel is Seraphina’s “garden,” a mind palace of sorts where she mentally retreats to sort—and contain—the emotions and memories passed down from her dragon mother. In a land steeped in religious traditions, rituals, and moral rigidity, Seraphina’s struggle to belong starts off a bit run-of-the-mill, and readers could quickly tire of sharing her burdens. In the early pages, even her musical talent manages to make her a misfit. Yet several unexpected elements—including the mind palace—save Seraphina from whining too much about her self-imposed isolation, and a strong supporting cast keeps the narrative moving forward. Seraphina’s father is progressive yet cynical; her uncle is peculiar yet instructive. In several clever scenes, dragons must adjust to having not only human bodies but also human emotions, for better or for worse. Where Seraphina soars is in how the reader senses a clear right and wrong while at the same time hesitating to name any one character as all good or all bad. The action slows down enough for readers to form opinions as varied and complicated as the figures in Seraphina’s mind garden, and the challenge of knowing one must act but not quite knowing how to act summarizes the plight of human existence. Thankfully for fans, Hartman already has more in the series. A marvelous exploration of the sacred and profane, the dignified and the ugly, the truth of knowledge and the truth of experience, Seraphina should be on every fantasy lover’s reading list, human, dragon, or otherwise.

Be sure to check out Rachel Hartman’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

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The Diviners
by Libba Bray

Little, Brown, and Company, 2012

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The verdict: Deeper than many YA novels of its type, the first book in Bray’s series delivers a spunky heroine and solid adventure despite its unanswered questions.

If last year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them created a hankering for more 1920s occult in New York City,  Libba Bray’s The Diviners might be the just the fix. It’s hefty for a young adult book, nearly 600 pages in the first edition, and at times the novel feels bloated with supporting characters, back stories, and wandering side plots. The central mystery, though, creates enough intrigue to keep the reader interested, and the conclusion provides an action-packed finish while leaving the door open for more to come in the series. As a plus, Bray’s extensive research into the setting lends authenticity to the happenings and places, making the paranormal elements all the more chilling.

Seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neil, a wannabe flapper girl with a secret supernatural gift, is sent from her dull Ohio hometown to live with her uncle in New York City. A grisly murder leads the police to consult Evie’s uncle, a curator of a museum dedicated to folklore and superstition, and Evie soon finds herself involved in the investigation. As the story progresses, readers meet a growing cast of teenagers with mystical powers, each with his or her own secrets, history, and ever-unfolding romantic tensions. Told in short chapters with changing perspectives, the novel revolves around Evie’s hunt for the killer, who proves to have otherworldly origins and growing powers of his own. Some of the secondary plotlines drag in the middle without contributing much to the main attraction, and at times the overlap is a bit hard to follow. Yet, despite the bumps, the last act delivers enough suspense and thrills to lure the wandering reader back in and refocus on Evie.

“‘Oh, sure. Of course, they say now that we’ve got Freud and the motorcar, God is dead.’

‘He’s not dead; just very tired.'”

While Bray easily could have left it at just a good old-fashioned ghost story, she doesn’t, and the push into deeper themes of identity adds a welcome complexity to the novel. Interspersed among the clues toward the murderer are questions of race, class, and religion as victims of abuse and personal tragedy take turns on center stage like the different acts of the Ziegfeld revue. Readers see not just the gruesome violence of a ghost-killer but also the human-led exploitation, prejudice, neglect, and lasting calamity of dreams long deferred. As Evie sneaks out to speakeasies and roaring parties, she remains largely naive to the darkness and hardships of those around her, but the reader gets a front-row seat. Evie’s uncle directly voices the question Bray paints throughout the narrative, wondering, “What sort of god would let this world happen?” Where the novel falters, however, is in Evie’s distance from these issues. Her rebellious attitude starts off as endearing but lacks a pivotal revelation to bring about maturity. Evie largely romps through the city without consequence or second thought while everyone else around her suffers, and she needs little personal sacrifice to obtain what she wants. Even in the most perilous moments, she escapes on her own without needing support or admitting any weakness. As a result, the novel falls flat instead of offering strong responses to the questions it raises, and readers are stranded in the same dark world they start in before the rise of a ghost killer. In the final chapters, it’s unclear who the real enemy is or what’s at stake for the many characters other than learning that sometimes the world can disappoint. Still smarter than many of its peers, The Diviners appeals to lovers of urban fantasy and YA romance, especially with a paranormal twist.

Be sure to check out Libba Bray’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.
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Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

Random House, 2006

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The verdict: Heartfelt, accessible, and deeply compelling, Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel is an all-around triumph.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge David Mitchell fanboy. I’m consistently blown away by his raw talent, endless creativity, and sheer ambition as a writer. Having read other titles prior to this one, I knew I’d be predisposed to love Black Swan Green, but it still managed to surprise me. I didn’t grow up in 1980s England, but I had no trouble relating to the protagonist or seeing the world through his eyes. Some have compared Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel to Catcher in the Rye, and I’d dare to say it’s better. I found it more approachable, more universally appealing, and, frankly, more entertaining than the classic American Bildungsroman (I’m an English literature teacher, so I don’t say that lightly).

The novel follows 13-year-old Jason Taylor for one year (13 months to be exact—each chapter is its own episode that contributes to the larger narrative) in the small town of Black Swan Green. Jason worries about his rank in the social hierarchy of his school and how to fit in despite his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it under a pseudonym; he fears failure, exposure, and rejection, yet through a nonstop whirl of adventures must learn to experience and overcome all three. The scenes range from a tense family dinner with visiting relatives to a bizarre afternoon spent hiking down a horseback riding trail, with everything from the nighttime hazing of a secret club to a life-changing occurrence at a town fair in between. Jason accidentally breaks his grandfather’s treasured watch and then seeks to replace it before his parents find out. As the story progresses, Jason himself must break, sometimes forcibly and sometimes by choice, wondering if anything in life can ever be put back to the way it once was.

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.'”

Mitchell’s achievement comes in how brilliantly he interweaves events of personal and global significance—Jason’s parents’ impending divorce, the growing conflict in the Falklands—without ever breaking the enchantment of the narrative. The slang fits without being distracting, and the reader stays just enough ahead to appreciate the joys and horrors of being a kid without exactly knowing how the story will end. Each of the chapters absorbs in its own way, from the ugly brutality of school bullies to the shy awkwardness of a first kiss, and the final tapestry is a timeless portrait of adolescence. Poignant throughout and a little bizarre in some parts, Black Swan Green is empathetic without sacrificing action and thought-provoking without sacrificing wit. To offer a criticism, I might say that the ending doesn’t pack a mind-blowing punch that will fundamentally change the way readers see the world, but I still found it satisfying. The subtlety provides a different kind of thesis. A 13-year-old doesn’t figure life out in a year, and that’s okay. Mitchell assures that, in the end, everything will be alright—but we’re still on the journey, and it’s not the end yet. I don’t have to be 13 to agree with that. Best suited for advanced teen readers and adults who appreciate literary prose, Black Swan Green is a rich depiction of a season of life and well worth the visit.

Be sure to check out David Mitchell’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.
If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.