Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World
by Rachel Swaby

May 6, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World by Rachel Swaby | April 2015 | Broadway Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing | Paperback $16.00

In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary—and consequent outcry—prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?

This review is based on a print uncorrected proof copy, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. That’s part of why it took me so long to get to — I was waiting on the preferred physical version. I also had access to an e-ARC via NetGalley.

Headstrong is a lovely little collection of profiles of lady scientists who probably don’t get enough credit for their contributions to our world. The first paragraph of the introduction explains the author’s motivation quite well, I think:

‘This book about scientists began with Beef Stroganoff. According to the New York Times, Yvonne Brill made a mean one. In an obituary in March 2013, Brill was honored with the title of “world’s best mom” because she “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Only after a loud, public outrcy did the Times amend the article so it would begin with the contribution that earned Brill a featured spot in the paper of record in the first place: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist.” Oh, right. That.’

I remember when this happened, and I remember being so frustrated… but not so surprised. Women have been involved in the sciences for a very long time, but the various disciplines still often operate like good ol’ boys’ clubs (though obviously circumstances vary from place to place and from field to field).

This book is a little shorter than I’d hoped for. It’s more like a mini-buffet of biographies than a full feast of them, but that’s OK because it makes for perfect lunchtime reading. I’m sure it is difficult to do such interesting people complete justice in just a few pages each, but Swaby did a fine job and there were several scientists that I really want to learn more about now!

Every included scientist is treated with respect and honesty, which I wish could be the case for women in the sciences in every other situation. If I could, I would put a copy of this in the hands of every AP science high school student or pre-med freshman. More young people — young women and men, especially those who intend to make a career in any scientific field — need to know about these all-too-frequently forgotten scientists.


Publication information: Swaby, Rachel. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World. New York: Broadway Books, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC from publisher via Goodreads giveaway.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Wonder at the Edge of the World
by Nicole Helget

May 5, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★

Wonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget | April 2015 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | Hardcover $17.00

Hallelujah Wonder wants to become one of the first female scientists of the nineteenth century. She knows every specimen and rare artifact that her explorer father hid deep in a cave before he died, and she feels a great responsibility to protect the objects (particularly a mesmerizing and dangerous one called the Medicine Head) from a wicked Navy captain who would use it for evil. Now she and her friend Eustace, a runaway slave, must set out on a sweeping adventure by land and by sea to the only place where no one will ever find the cursed relic….

This review is based on an e-ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss.

I mostly enjoyed this middle grade historical/fantastical adventure.

First, let’s talk about some cool non-story stuff. I love the cover. The artwork and the title lettering are both just perfect. I also really appreciated that the book includes a basic map of North America during the time period the story’s set in.

The story starts out in pre-Civil War Kansas, where Hallelujah Wonder (cute name!) is dealing with the aftermath of the death of her father as well as escalating violence in the little prairie town where she lives. She’s not happy there, understandably, and she’s not shy about letting you know it.

The main character (the entire story is told in first person), Lu, is a slightly aggravating little know-it-all. It took me a while to figure out what her main flaw is (and other reviewers have called her a “Mary Sue” because at first she seems so perfect): she’s independent, intelligent, scientifically curious, an abolitionist and friendly with slaves in a border state just prior to the Civil War. Her self-confessed “flaws” are freckles and a lack of desire to pursue a traditional woman’s life of marriage and child-rearing, which aren’t so much “flaws” as they are characteristics that are meant to endear her to modern girls.

Unfortunately, much of the way she addresses the reader as well as other characters, comes off as… I don’t know, a little bit condescending or snobby? She’s constantly explaining things with a sort of tone that indicates that she knows she’s smarter than you, and the things she likes (whales, for example) are clearly more interesting than her current reality (a sadly whale-deprived Kansas prairie).

Here are a couple of examples of her “tone” to illustrate what I’m talking about:

“I haven’t got much oil left. It’s good oil, though, spermaceti, the best illumination oil you can get. Do you know what spermaceti oil is? Well, if you don’t, I’ll tell you.”

“Here in Tolerone, everyone uses the cheap stuff. […] I guess people here in this sea-empty place don’t have access to all the wonderful products humans can make out of whales. [Going on to describe how awesome whale stuff is and how pathetic Kansas people are for not having any whale stuff.]”

“‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a place called South America,’ I say to Eustace. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of South America,’ says Eustace. ‘I’m not a dolt.’”

“Eustace leans his head against a cave wall and stares up at the ceiling. ‘I want to see a penguin someday,’ he says. ‘I heard they don’t fly. Like chickens.’ I’m annoyed that Eustace is interrupting my story. ‘Penguins aren’t even slightly close to chickens,’ I say. ‘Now, shush.’”

This is all from the first page of the chapter, but it continues on in that way for most of the rest of the book. I have to assume that this was purposeful, but I question the wisdom of making insufferable intellectual snobbishness a primary character trait of the voice of a middle grade level first person narrative. Of course, unlikable characters and unreliable narrators often make for wonderful stories, but I’m not sure that most kids of the target age group for this book would be able to actually appreciate Lu’s snobbishness – though she does eventually come to acknowledge that she can be “a little bit bumptious” at times, so there is some level of self-aware character growth going on.

I eventually came to a kind of grudging acceptance of Lu’s attitude, enough to mostly enjoy the story anyway. Lu herself has to find it in her to accept the idea that her beloved father wasn’t perfect, which can be kind of a hard thing for a kid to learn about a parent – especially if said parent is no longer living.

Anyway, the actual story itself is something between cute and harsh. Lu and her best friend Eustace end up running off, in part to escape a villainous character/slavery and in part to figure out the mysteries behind a particularly strange artifact that Lu inherited from her adventurer father. Their travels don’t even really start until nearly halfway through the book, though – when I read the summary I expected that this adventuring would be the focus of the plot, but there’s quite a lot of build-up while the kids are stuck dealing with various dramas in Kansas.

The latter 1/3 of the book was actually quite riveting. Here was the action-packed adventure I’d been hoping for, here was the answer to the mystery of Lu’s super creepy artifact, and here was the satisfying disposal of the bad guy who’d been chasing our intrepid kid-heroes across half the world. It’s almost as though the last part of the book doesn’t even really belong with the first – based on the pacing up to this point, I’d begun to think that this book would end with a set-up for a sequel rather than a full conclusion.

Also, I don’t know if a kid would be interested in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, but I certainly was – the insight into the actual historical people and events that inspired this story actually made me think more warmly of it – it’s hard to be grumpy about a book when you know how much research and careful thought went into writing it!

This is not exactly a stand out in the Unladylike Young Ladies Go Adventuring division of the Historical Fiction genre, but I’m glad I didn’t give up on it at the beginning because it turned out to be a quite fun, satisfying little story.


Publication information: Helget, Nicole. Wonder at the Edge of the World. New York: Little, Brown, 2015. EPUB.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Things We Know by Heart
by Jessi Kirby

May 4, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


I found this one hard to rate due to my personal experience with one of the main topics of this book: organ donation.

Things We Know by Heart by Jessi Kirby | April 2015 | HarperTeen | Harcover $17.99

After Quinn loses her boyfriend, Trent, in an accident their junior year, she reaches out to the recipients of his donated organs in hopes of picking up the pieces of her now-unrecognizable life. She hears back from some of them, but the person who received Trent’s heart has remained silent. The essence of a person, she has always believed, is in the heart. If she finds Trent’s, then maybe she can have peace once and for all.

This review is based on a print ARC.

I don’t want to go into too much detail because privacy but let’s have a quick Personal Story Time. . .

A little over 2 decades ago, my little brother was killed in a car wreck. He was only toddler. Due to the nature of his injuries, he was eligible to be an organ donor. His liver saved the life of a baby girl in another state. That girl grew into a smart, kind, beautiful young woman whom I’m privileged to be acquainted with.

The problem for me is that this all happened right around Easter. This time of year has since been particularly difficult for my family to enjoy. So what do I do, complete dolt that I am? I started reading this book… on Easter.

My subconscious is apparently supremely masochistic.

The characters in this book are not just lovey-dovey teenagers. They’re having to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy/miracle, an accident that took the life of one young person but granted it to another. This is not an easy subject to deal with, but I think Jessi Kirby handled it with wonderful sensitivity and insight.

Anyway, I hate to have to give this book an actual star rating because my feelings about it are really not entirely fair. I mean, all book ratings are at least partly subjective, but usually I can at least think rationally about them. Not so for Things We Know by Heart.

I do recommend this book, though. It’s a little more romance-y than I generally go for, but it fits right in with The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay and the other tear-jerker contemporary YA fics that have been so popular lately. This one is sure to do well, and I’ll tell my teens at the library about it.


Publication information: Kirby, Jessi. Things We Know by Heart. New York: HarperTeen, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC provided via giveaway managed by Lisa Schroeder.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Game of Love and Death
by Martha Brockenbrough

April 5, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0



The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough | April 2015 | Scholastic / Levine | Hardcover $17.99

Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now… Henry and Flora.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

This review is based on a print ARC.

Forbidden romances. Unexpected dangers. Anthropomorphized human conditions. Throw in a little jazz music and you’ve got the recipe for The Game of Love and Death.

The concept is simple: Love and Death are actual characters in this book, and they’re playing games with the lives of humans. The humans in this case are Henry and Flora, two young people facing impending adulthood in Seattle in the late 1930’s.

Henry is an orphan who is being raised by his father’s wealthy business partner; he is expected become some sort of businessman and marry a young lady of decent social standing, but all he really wants to do is play his bass in a jazz band.

Flora, also an orphan, has had to quit school in order to take care of her poor grandmother; she’s the star singer at her uncle’s nightclub but her real passion is flying airplanes. As if being an economically disadvantaged young woman with career goals in a male-dominated field isn’t hard enough, Flora is black.

So there’s your set-up for massive drama.

I mean, the drama keeps ratcheting up throughout the book. Hidden disabilities, illicit love affairs, amnesia, Prohibition, and WWII looming over the horizon… with a mix like this, the reader can’t help but feel some serious tension.

One thing I wish I’d had the benefit of understanding from the beginning is that Love and Death, the characters, are protagonists of the story just as much as Henry and Flora are — but they are not exactly heroes, nor villains. I think of them as something like the deities of ancient mythologies — in the same way that Aphrodite and Hades were personifications of / rulers over / dealers in their respective domains of love and death as well as players in their own stories, and prone to somewhat “human” whims or proclivities… and mistakes.

Overall, I think the pacing of this book is practically perfect and its various little plot twists are delightful. I particularly enjoyed the historical setting, too. I admit that I was frustrated sometimes by the way Love and Death continued to magically interfere, but once I accepted the idea that they are not supposed to be observers but characters in the book just as much as their human pawns are (albeit far more powerful and mysterious) this method of plot progression began to make more sense.

The Game of Love and Death is also sort of hard for me to categorize — it isn’t precisely “historical fiction” because of the fantastical elements, but it isn’t what I usually think of as “fantasy” or “paranormal” either, considering the lack of vampires and hobbits and such.

So, yes, I highly recommend this story! It goes on sale in the US on April 28 (though I think a paperback version is already in the wild in some parts of the world?), so there’s plenty of time to preorder it or put in your purchase request at your local public library if this book seems like it would appeal to you.

ALSO, Ms. Brockenbrough is going to be at the Texas Library Association conference! I won’t get to be there this year (huge bummer dude) but if you are, be sure to check out the panel she’s a part of (“After Harry Potter: The Future of YA Fantasy”) on Tues at 2 pm.


Publication information: Brockenbrough, Martha. The Game of Love and Death. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2015. Print.
Source: ARC provided via giveaway managed by Lisa Schroeder.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Next Species
by Michael Tennesen

March 22, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★

The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man by Michael Tennesen | March 2015 | Simon & Schuster | Hardcover $26.00

A growing number of scientists agree we are headed toward a mass extinction, perhaps in as little as 300 years. Already there have been five mass extinctions in the last 600 million years, including the Cretaceous Extinction, during which an asteroid knocked out the dinosaurs. Though these events were initially destructive, they were also prime movers of evolutionary change in nature. And we can see some of the warning signs of another extinction event coming, as our oceans lose both fish and oxygen. In The Next Species, Michael Tennesen questions what life might be like after it happens.

This is a decent pop-sci introduction to modern hypotheses regarding mass extinction events and evolutionary mechanisms, with a bit of “humans are probably going to accidentally suicide as a species” thrown in for funsies.

I guess I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. Perhaps my problem is simply that I’m not the target audience for it? I’m already familiar with many of the concepts discussed therein, and I’m quite interested in learning more about various subjects covered in the book, but there was never enough depth in the coverage of any topic to satisfy me. On one page we’re reading about the Burgess Shale, and on the next it’s tuskless elephants. I think the author must have been trying to gather lots of related topics into broad but shallow overviews of his ideas, but this left me unsatisfied.

One of the things I did like about this book is the inclusion of the author’s own experiences. From the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas to Vilcabamba in Peru, the readers is treated to first-hand accounts of various ecologically interesting locations. If the entire book had been a kind of travelogue from the perspective of an ecologist or evolutionary biologist, I’d have been 100% pleased.

– – – – – –

If it had been a mere matter of my preferred content vs. the actual content, I’d certainly have rated the book a little higher. But unfortunately, some key concepts are poorly explained. I’ll demonstrate this with an example:

“For life to really get going, to produce the complex forms of more evolved beings, it had to have oxygen. [….] But then some of the oxygen-free bacteria evolved into cyanobacteria or blue-green algae [….] Photosynthesis used sunshine, water, and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and, finally, oxygen. [….]

“Oxygen was the critical element in the burst of evolution that occurred during the Cambrian Explosion about 570 to 530 million years ago, when most of the major animal groups suddenly appear in the fossil record. At the time the air was murky, since there wasn’t enough oxygen to scrub the atmosphere of haze and dust1. Without oxygen, there was no ozone, either, so the searing intensity of ultraviolet light from the sun could fall without obstruction2. Ultraviolet life [sic] breaks up water (H2O), and since hydrogen (H) is so light, it can slip into space, and there goes your ocean3. Without oxygen holding on to hydrogen, the world today might look a lot like Mars: a dry, dusty, pockmarked planet with no seas, lakes, rivers, or streams and no visible sign of life.

“Oxygen gradually accumulated on earth from the photosynthesis of plants4. Once oxygen reached critical mass, changes were sudden. If you look at the paleontological record in the soil, there is evidence of oxygen-free microbes in one layer, followed closely by oxygen-dependent microbes in another layer. This introduction of oxygen, though a boon to most life, spelled destruction for a good deal of earth’s [sic] early ancestors who excelled without it.

“Oxygen made the planet livable. Once established, oxygen patrolled the atmosphere capturing all the hydrogen atoms trying to get away [….]”

1 I’m not clear on how a single elemental gas is supposed to “scrub” the atmosphere of haze (made of what?) and dust.

2 Wait, you just said the atmosphere was full of “haze and dust”… which sound like obstructions to me.

3 OK, so let’s get this straight: There was no oxygen in the atmosphere, so UV light could break up the water molecules of the ocean. The hydrogen just floated off into space, presumably leaving the oxygen behind. So what happened to the left-behind oxygen molecules?

4 I though you JUST said it was cyanobacteria? I mean, multicellular plants took X years to develop, well after single-celled organisms caught on to the whole photosynthesis thing.

– – – – – –

I guess the author is trying to simplify things to make the book more readable for the lay person, but (in my opinion) he succeeded only in making these science concepts more confusing than they have to be.

Though the review copy I read was full of random grammar or word choice errors, which have presumably been picked up prior to printing the final copy, I really think this book could have used the attentions of a more thorough content editor. In the same way that long fiction books/series need someone to keep an eye on the continuity of the plot, someone has to pay close attention to the flow of thought (from premise to evidence to reasoning) in science nonfiction books. The Next Species could have been so much more enjoyable and informative if only I didn’t have to constantly try to “translate” what the author was attempting to say or second-guess the logic behind the conclusions.

Perhaps this disconnect was due in part to Tennesen’s experiences as a writer for science magazines like Discover and Scientific American. Perhaps I may have found the book more enjoyable if it were published as a series of articles instead? I don’t know.

To end the review on a more positive note, I did appreciate the obviously massive amount of research that went into this book. Thorough evidence gathering/sharing is so important in science and Tennesen does this very well in The Next Species.


Publication information: Tennesen, Michael. The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. EPUB.
Source: Provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

30 by 30 Project Check-In

March 21, 2015 Just for Fun 0

It’s hard to believe, but my little corner of the Internet is now 4 years old! I started writing here in March of 2011. A lot has changed since then.

The design has changed, as has the typical content. As I’ve gotten more comfortable with a little bit of blending between my online and “real” lives, and as I’ve been increasingly active in certain communities, I’ve really had to clean up around here! Many of my older posts have been scrubbed away. Right now I’m working on bringing back some of the decent content in a way that jives with the current purpose + atmosphere of Lone Star on a Lark.

In real life, the past 4 years has been a whirlwind. I gained a Master’s degree and a new librarian job (plus 2 accidental promotions) and lost a faithful old vehicle. My husband got a new job, too. And I picked up a couple of new hobbies: sewing and genealogy (though I’m still very much in the beginner stage of both). I’ve made new friends and really settled in to our new post-college life here.

I’ve been in kind of a funk these past 2 weeks, but I’m planning a big “blog birthday” giveaway soon, so keep an eye out for it!

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Many people like to make New Year Resolutions. I totally admire that, but for some reason I always feel more comfortable doing the whole yearly review and planning thing around my birthday at the start of spring.

Last year I started a new set of goals: my 30 by 30 Project. Here’s what it looks like as of today:

  1. Read at least 250 books
  2. Read at least 20 new-to-me classic books
  3. Participate in SpoT High 2014-2017
  4. Write at least 40 book reviews
  5. Write at least 100k words for my multi-year NaNoWriMo project
  6. Finish cataloging our home library
  7. Research my family tree
  8. Build a genealogy website to share with my family
  9. Organize + digitize all of our personal photos
  10. Organize and back up my hard drives
  11. Have a movie marathon
  12. Visit a vineyard or attend a wine festival
  13. Go on a picnic
  14. Go to a geekish con or fest — bonus points for cosplay
  15. Leave the state for a vacation
    ✓ Grade: A

    We went to San Diego in October of 2014.

  16. Spend a day at a spa
  17. Have a party at our place
  18. Write a fan letter
    ✓ Grade: C

    I wrote a letter to my all-time favorite author, Terry Pratchett. Knocked off a few grade points because I only managed to write it after he died.

  19. Give up video games for good
  20. Lose weight — ideally, about 50 pounds
  21. Go a month without fast food or delivery
  22. Visit a dentist
  23. Stitch at least 10 wearable/usable things for myself
  24. Sketch or paint at least 10 things
  25. Craft at least 5 gifts for other people or pets
  26. Cook, really cook, at least once per week
  27. Cook my way through a cookbook or food blog
  28. Start a custom recipe book
  29. Vote at least once
    ✓ Grade: A

    Voted in the Texas state + local elections in 2014.

  30. Buy a house

It might not look like a whole lot of progress, but I think I’m doing OK so far. Many of those goals are “in progress” and a few others can easily be accomplished within the next year or so. Wish me luck!


March 15, 2015 Books 0

Dear Sir,

I must apologize for the belated nature of this letter. I know it’s too late, but I need to write it anyway.

Thank you for writing some of the best books I’ve ever read. Not some: most. Thank you for writing these stories and then sending them out into the world to be discovered by people who didn’t know they needed those stories, but whose lives were made so much the better for reading them. I’m one of those people.

Yes, I’m part of a big crowd. The only folks I know of who don’t like your books are folks who haven’t read them yet. Well, I possibly know one or two people just who wouldn’t admit to not liking them, because no one in their right mind would admit such a thing to your fans, but then no one in their right mind wouldn’t like them anyway, so perhaps we’re all even.

I suppose you know all about not being in your right mind, though. I’m sorry. You deserved better.

This letter is difficult to write because I can’t stop thinking in clichés. “You’re an inspiration.” “Your work meant so much to me personally.” “I’m your biggest fan.” Statements you must have heard over and over again. You write a lot about your interactions with fans in your recent book A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Nonfiction, which I just finished reading this weekend, with simultaneously wonderful and terrible timing. I had just started on the last third of the book (“Days of Rage”), which includes several articles on your experiences with Alzheimer’s, when I saw the news.

I wish your life didn’t have to end that way. I wish it didn’t have to end, period, but then you’d be some sort of immortal Dreadlord, which frankly I might not have minded anyway because Dreadlord Pratchett sounds just fine as Dreadlords go, but you can see how your immortality might be disconcerting. But I do wish you hadn’t been stolen so prematurely from your readers, from your friends and family, and from your own self.

I’ve been meaning to write this fan letter for a long time, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. What would be the point?, I thought. You get so many fan letters anyway. So many interviews and write-ups and book reviews and special features. But I should have written. I should have joined that chorus of people who wanted to tell you that you did something wonderful for them. I waited too long.

Maybe what I’m really trying to say is simply this:

Thank you.

I’ll miss you.




Fond Farewell to a Noble Steed

March 11, 2015 Home Sweet Home 0

I found out this week that Karmit was totalled.

Karmit was my 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid. I named him Karmit (Car-mit) for obvious reasons….


Yes, I 100% fell
for Muppet marketing.
No regrets.

I was rear-ended on the highway in late February of this year. I was lucky in 3 ways. First, I was not really injured. Minorly bruised ribs due to proper seatbelt usage hardly counts as injury. Second, I did not hit the car in front of me, causing a chain reaction of rear-ends. (Although now I’m picturing some sort of chain reaction of butts, which is far more amusing than what actually happened.) I veered off into the grass, so there were only 2 vehicles involved in this accident. The third lucky thing, obviously, is that the accident was not my fault — and the other driver had insurance.

smashed car

This was the last I saw of Karmit.

I admit that I cried when my husband told me that the collision center declared Karmit a total loss. It’s kind of silly, but I was super attached to my Escape. He was only my second vehicle, the first (Fred) being an older (but safe, sort of fun, and begrudgingly beloved) hand-me-down from my mother. Karmit served me well for almost 8 years.

He was a good car.


The Walls Around Us
by Nova Ren Suma

March 10, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma | March 2015 | Algonquin Young Readers | Hardcover $17.95

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

I was impressed by the tension and darkness of The Walls Around Us. I received an ARC of this book from a giveaway managed by Lisa Schroeder, YA author.

A reviewer from Oblong Books & Music, an indie bookshop in New York, said of this book:

Orange is the New Black Swan

And that is really rather accurate. This book is part ballerina-cum-psycho, part prison personality parade – except, of course, starring high schoolers instead of adult women. It’s also part ghost story and part “teen girls can be the absolute worst to each other” story.

I wouldn’t really say this is a realistic tale, though the ghost-y elements aren’t even really the focus of the plot up until the very end so I’m not sure I’d categorize it as paranormal, either. It tastes more like magical realism, almost? The focus is on the messed-up mind of a dancer, the consequences of her actions for the person who was her only real friend, and the life (or loss of life) of teen girls in a juvenile detention facility.

 Here are the first few lines:

We went wild that hot night. We howled; we raged; we screamed. We were girls  some of us fourteen and fifteen; some sixteen, seventeen – but when the locks came undone, the doors of our cells gaping open and no one to shove us back in, we made the noise of savage animals, of men.

Nova Ren Suma does an amazing job keeping the tension tight throughout the book. I’m not just talking about the pacing – though there is never a dull moment, which is another point in its favor. I’m thinking of the sort of creepy, something ain’t right feeling that permeates every scene.

The conclusion isn’t hard to guess at if you’re paying attention, but you’ll still want to stay up late reading this all the way to the end anyway.

Also, I have to say – I LOVE LOVE LOVE the cover. The cover artist is Connie Gabbert (see links section below for the artist’s website).

This book comes out in 2 weeks, on March 24th.


Publication information: Suma, Nova Ren. The Walls Around Us. New York: Algonquin, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC provided via giveaway.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Under a Painted Sky
by Stacey Lee

March 2, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee | G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group | March 2015 | Hardcover $16.99

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician — not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. […] This debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

I was pleasantly surprised by Under a Painted Sky. Here’s the thing: I’m not into “Westerns” (in the traditional genre sense, involving cowboys and pioneers and the like). Yeah, I know, I bring a deep shame upon my über-Texas family. Such is my burden.

Anyway, I wasn’t sure about the whole Oregon Trail/California Gold Rush angle but I requested a review copy anyway for 2 reasons:

  1. The publisher bills this as “a powerful tale of friendship and sacrifice for fans of Code Name Verity” and even though I haven’t read that one yet I did read its companion novel, Rose Under Fire and liked it very much.
  2. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the need for more diversity in publishing, especially in children’s/teen books, and I want to put more effort into reading/promoting books with diverse characters. The main POV character in Under a Painted Sky is of Chinese descent in an era when being anything other than “white” in America was terribly difficult and dangerous.

Under a Painted Sky comes out in about 2 weeks on March 17, 2015. This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Pay close attention to the term “heart-wrenching” in that summary quoted up above. It is not an exaggeration. I was fooled by the colorful, almost cheerful cover. The cover is a LIE. This book will rip your heart out.

Lee doesn’t shy away from the realities of racism, disease, natural disasters, and general violence in the Wild West. No one is safe and nothing is sacred. The main characters (the two runaway girls and their cowboy friends) experience serious danger and hard losses.

That said, there is a healthy dose of humor and sweetness to go along with the horrors. It’s not all bad. One of the best things about this book is the way the characters’ relationships develop. I think it is quite obvious to the reader that the cowboys have guessed at Sammy and Andy’s big gender-bender secret well before the end of the book, but Sammy and Andy don’t know that and so they go on pretending… and some of the predicaments they deal with because of this disguise are definitely giggle-worthy.

Under a Painted Sky gets extra points from me for just being so different from everything else that’s currently big in the teen book publishing arena right now. Perhaps the comparison to Code Name Verity is a good one. Here’s an historical fiction book that’s obviously well-researched and fairly historically accurate, but it is so full of adventure and OMGFEELS that it won’t feel like just some boring history/ethics lesson.

I highly recommend this book, with the fair warning that Lee does use historically accurate racial slurs on occasion (though within a sensitively handled context), plus some sexual situations/language — nothing too shocking in comparison to most modern YA books. Even though I got to borrow an e-book pre-pub version, I think I’m going to buy a paper copy for myself to keep. Plus, I might get to rub shoulders with the author at the TLA conference in April!

Here’s the author blurb from the review copy:


Publication information: Lee, Stacey. Under a Painted Sky. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. EPUB.
Source: This review is based on an e-ARC that I received from the publisher via NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.