Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Bearskin by Jamie Robyn Wood

When I was a little girl, I drank fairy tales like breakfast orange juice. I wanted many sips every day. The obsession with them did not stop when I got older and I even took courses about fairy tales in college. When I was contemplating starting a Ph.D. program I asked my husband, “Do you think there is a doctorate in fairy tales?” True to fairy tale form, he answered, “You can create anything you want.” So, when I was asked to write a review on the debut novel BearskinBearskin by Jamie Robyn Wood
by Jamie Robyn Wood, I was excited. I knew the old Grimm fairy tale of judgment and honor and I could not wait to hear a retelling. However, to my surprise I found this was not a retelling. Instead it was a what I would call an intertwining. Wood has pulled threads and archetypes from the genre and woven them together in a new story.

The book opens with an evil witch trying to persuade her son Heppson to kill his older stepbrother Conrad. She has married the King of Alaistair (whom she has stripped of his power) and the King’s heir is in the way of her taking power on the throne. The evil witch also has a daughter, Moiria, who is watching the entire interaction from behind a curtain. Her critical choice was a surprise. Heppson makes a decision that thrusts the entire plot of the book forward. He challenges the Queen’s power and he eventually becomes our Bearskin wearer. We also meet characters in the forest, sisters Lark and Heart, who become an integral part of the novel. Magic invades their normal life and throws everything in upheaval.

Wood’s writing was refreshing. It was lyrical and poetic without being heavy. Her descriptions were clean and vivid and the settings were inviting. It is not easy to describe a person becoming a bear or shedding that same skin. Wood does it beautifully. She did not overuse words or become cliché, which I have seen in many Young Adult novels. All her characters are multi-dimensional. That is a feat! I loved all the dark and good magic that weaves throughout the novel. The dialogue is believable and keeps the plot moving forward.

I gave the novel to my ten-year old son and twelve-year old daughter who usually love books like this. They both read it for about fifteen minutes and independently said that they were confused. They would not pick it up again. Wood has a lot of plot to disseminate at the beginning of the book and it can be a bit tedious for younger readers where there is not a lot of dialogue and more setting up of the plot. My recommendation is that this book is for more experienced readers because it takes patience to understand the change in points of view and follow all of the characters. Once this is done, the writing really pulls you in. That’s where Wood gets her groove on and the plot flows seamlessly. My other criticism is that although Moiria’s character is never dull, she changes from good to evil so quickly that it confused me. From what we are given of her at the beginning, the actions she takes seem completely out of character. This thought made me disbelieve her deeds throughout the entire novel…but I am kind of a difficult like that.

Like every good fairy tale, the themes of the book are magic, honor, love, and choice. Even the smallest decisions that the characters make have far reaching consequences. They realize that the power is within themselves to be self-seeking with their choices or to help others and live in a more noble way, no matter the cost to themselves.

I would recommend this novel to anyone seeking a few hours of living in a magical world with interesting characters. If you like castles, evil witches, magical forests, shape-shifters, nice grandmothers, romance, strong female characters, and changing settings, then this is a book you should definitely pick up, tuck your feet in, and cozy up with by the fire for a while.

Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from the Book of Mormon

A year ago we reviewed the first book in the Girls Who Choose God series, Stories of Strong Women from the Bible. Today we are very pleased to share that it was so well-received, a second book, Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from the Book of Mormon, has been published. This guest post by author McArthur Krishna tells the story of how it came about.

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Most people in the church don’t think there are many women in the Book of Mormon… If you ask us to name women we all stumble through a few… and then are stuck. I was exactly the same.

When Bethany and I were in a meeting with Deseret Book about the first Girls Who Choose God book, I was one of the people who nodded and agreed, “Yup– there aren’t enough women in the Book of Mormon to do its own volume”–  and so we decided to focus on the Bible.

Fast forward a year later– we were researching and reading and actually paying attention and we found an amazing thing– there are LOTS of times women are mentioned in the Book of Mormon.  Over 155 times, in fact. Frankly, we got all excited wondering if there were actually enough substance to write a Girls Who Choose God book with these women?

Turns out, with a lot of prayerful wrangling, there is.

Drumroll…. Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from the Book of Mormon is now available.
YES.

Now, I don’t take umbrage with the Book of Mormon not having many named women.  I understand it was a different time, culture, age. What I take umbrage with is myself– I had completely missed all the women, though I have read the Book of Mormon more than a dozen times.

Why did I miss the women?  Simply because they often are not named?  Because they are not shown as the lead role in the story? We need to get better at recognizing and honoring women’s participation in the God’s work… and not just one narrow type of work but a broad spectrum of contribution. We can all contribute with whatever gifts we have.

For example, I am feisty. I admit this, I even had it listed in my online dating profile.  (Despite my mother’s pleas I tone down the word, I left it.  I thought anything else would be false advertising.)  However, there was a period of time when I worried about whether it was ok that I was such a firebrand. I was not very soft or tender or mild or any of those sorts of things that seemed (to me) to get held up as the way a Mormon woman should be.

It was about the same time when I got called to be the seminary teacher.  When the branch president laid his hands on my head to set me apart he ran through the usual mantle…and then paused.  He paused long enough that I cocked an eyebrow upwards wondering what in the world was going on.  Then he spoke, “God wants you to know that He is well pleased with your fiery spirit. It is the spirit He gave you.”

I was stunned.

The branch president had no idea that I wrested with this question.  He used the exact word that was my concern…
and after he closed the prayer he just shook his head at me, “You should know– that last part was not me.” Oh, I knew.

I felt a big, tight part of the inside of me breathe deeply… and release. I was known by God.  And who I was was not just ok, but divinely crafted.

My very next thought after sheer humbled gratitude was, “So how do I use this gift?”

Over the years opportunities have presented themselves.  But now I use all my grit and feistiness to write books that I think matter.  When that process is challenging, I don’t give up.  And then I speak, and write, and plot and plan to get the word out. I call all over Temple Square for a month looking for the right person who might be able to get the paintings hung in the Conference Center.  Bethany and I work together to make our work as elegant and clean as possible.. and maybe a little feisty.

I can use my feistiness to serve God in this way.

Why does Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from the Book of Mormon matter? For many reasons.  But, one, is we need to recognize that women come in all different forms.  They contribute to God’s work in many different ways.  These stories show the power of women’s faith, prayers, courage, teaching… the power of being a daughter of God who throws herself with energy and determination into serving goodness.  And that matters for the women of the Book of Mormon… and it matters for us today.

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Author McArthur Krishna is passionate about helping children learn the most vital lessons of life.  She publishes a social awareness series with Scholastic India Books, a diversity and celebration of life series with Amber Jack publishing, and is now publishing a Girls Who Choose God series with Deseret Book.  As McArthur says, “I have loved writing for children.  They are so eager for goodness and sponges for learning.  There are many topics that stories can help children learn like empathy, resolving conflict peacefully, sharing– but the most important concept I would want a child to know is 1) They are a child of God and 2) So is everybody else.” 

2014 Whitney Awards: Middle Grade Finalists

I feel fortunate to be the one writing about the Middle Grade Whitney finalists, because there’s not a bad book in the bunch– all five were delightful and interesting in their own (quite varied) ways. Here’s the recap:

Marion Jensen’s Almost Super is the kind of book that epitomizes a middle grade novel for me. The story centers on Rafter and Benny Bailey, of the famous Bailey superhero family, who will get their superpowers at 4pm on the first February 29th after their twelfth birthdays. They’ve spent their entire lives dreaming of this moment, and they’re totally underwhelmed when those superpowers do arrive (the ability to light polyester on fire doesn’t often come in handy in hand to hand combat). The boys worry that their family is going to go down against the cross-town rivals, the Johnsons, especially since it appears that Juanita, their nemesis, has all the powers. But the three kids come together to heal rifts and ferret out the real bad guys behind the scenes. This book is witty and entertaining and has a great message, and although it’s a perfect stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Rafter, Benny and Juanita.

I usually don’t have many good things to say about the second book in a dystopian action trilogy, but Peggy Eddleman’s Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats is an exception to my (highly prejudiced) rule. In this book, the bomb’s breath that threatens White Rock is descending, and Hope, Brock, and Aaren leave their home in Kansas to travel to the Rocky Mountains in an effort to find an antidote to the poison that will soon overtake them. The book has plenty of action and adventure, but my favorite part of the story was Hope’s relationship with her birth family, whom she discovered along the way. I think it’s common for authors to develop characters in their first novels, but I loved seeing Hope’s character change in important ways in The Forbidden Flats.

The first book in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince, was one of those books that was so good I think I bored all of my friends by talking about and demanding that they read it too. The character development was lovely, the descriptions of the setting were right on target, and the plot twist at the end of the story had me thinking Nielsen was a genius. I think that in some way that set my expectations too high for the other books in the trilogy. While The Shadow Throne brings the trilogy to an ultimately satisfying conclusion, I found myself unable to recapture the thrill I felt while reading the first book in the series.

This year the Whitney finalists included two books by Kimberley Griffiths Little, The Time of the Fireflies and Forbidden (in the YA category), and both books are gems. The Time of the Fireflies is the story of Larissa Renaud, who lives above her family’s antique shop on a Louisiana bayou. Larissa isn’t scared by much in the shop, except for the doll whose eyes seem to follow her. Then the phones in a wall of disconnected phones start ringing, delivering messages for Larissa, who realizes that she must travel to the past to secure her family’s future. The book is beautifully written with scenes spanning several centuries, and the themes of family love and bullying resonate with her intended audience. The story is also delightfully creepy, and may keep readers’ lights on for a few nights after they finish the book.

 My top pick of the category is undoubtedly Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The seven students at Saint Etheldreda’s School for Girls are enjoying their Sunday dinner when suddenly their headmistress and her brother drop dead at the dinner table. The girls see this fortuitous event as their ticket to freedom, and decide to bury the bodies in the vegetable garden rather than inform the authorities, who will surely return them to their parents. However, keeping their headmistress’s demise a secret and fending off a murderer becomes more work than they had bargained for. While the book takes place in the Victorian Era, these girls (Pocked Louisa, Stout Alice, Dull Martha, Smooth Kitty, Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane and Dour Elinor) have spirit to spare. They recognize that the death of Mrs. Plackett might lead to the most freedom they would have in their lives. This is a darkly tongue-in-cheek book that gets all of the details right, and also has a lot more heart than I expected it would when I started reading. I enjoyed it more and more as the story wore on, and was happy to see a satisfying conclusion, with lots of girl power.

2014 Whitney Awards: Romance Finalists

When I first started reading books for the Whitney Awards about half a decade ago, I was enthusiastic about the general fiction books and the young adult books (that’s back in the old days when there was a single YA category). I had a healthy respect for speculative fiction, and a degree of scorn for the romances. Yeah, I was one of those people who thought she was too serious a reader to enjoy romance novels. However, over the last few years, my attitude has changed. Once I understood the form of the genre and was willing to go with it rather than buck its conventions, I started to enjoy the category more and more. In fact, “reading the romance” (also the title of a fascinating book by Janice Radway) has become one of the things I look forward to most with each Whitney cycle. This year was no different, and here’s why.

This year there are three “historical romances” among the finalists, and two contemporary romances. For the last three years, historical romances have taken the prize, and they seem to be enjoying a heyday at the moment. This might be because Mormon authors and Mormon readers generally want to read “clean” books, and historical romances, which often feature aristocratic or highborn characters, tend to follow old-fashioned courting rituals, and there’s no expectation that sex and swearing will be part of the book, even if the characters aren’t Mormon (by the way, only one of the five finalists features overtly Mormon characters this year).  Continue reading 2014 Whitney Awards: Romance Finalists

2014 Whitney Awards: Mystery/Thriller Finalists

Blood on the Water: A William Monk Novel by Anne Perry (Ballantine, Sept. 2014)

The setting for Blood on the Water, is, like the other books in the William Monk series, Victorian London. When a pleasure boat full of partyers explodes on the Thames, taking nearly 200 people to their deaths, William Monk assumes that, as commander of the River Police, he will have to investigate this disaster. To his surprise and disappointment, the case is handed instead to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who quickly labels the event a crime and captures, tries and sentences the ne’r-do-well Egyptian Habib Beshara to death. When Monk proves that Beshara was elsewhere at the time of the blast, the case – now in shambles – is handed to Monk.

With the assistance of his brilliant wife Hester and long-time friend Rathbone, Monk endeavors to sort out the complexities of the disaster. Was it in some way connected to the construction of the Suez Canal, certain to be a boon to wealthy British shipping companies? Was the explosion intended to senselessly kill innocent people or were they collateral damage in an effort to murder one specific person? How and when was the bomb planted and by whom? Was there a motive or was this the work of a madman?

International intrigue seems afoot. Monk’s investigations are stonewalled by the rich and powerful. In the confusion and complexities of his inquiries Monk senses he may be the next victim. Continue reading 2014 Whitney Awards: Mystery/Thriller Finalists