Friday, August 22, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

My Real Children by Jo Walton is a fascinating, character-driven alternate history for grown-ups.

Patricia is very old (she can't quite remember how old), and she's in a nursing home. "Confused today," the nurses write on her chart, or, "Very confused." They often write, "Very confused." It's true. It's not exactly that Patricia can't remember certain things -- it's that she remembers two lives. Did she marry Mark shortly after college, or did she find happiness a little later in life with Bee? Did she have three children, or four? Was her time spent writing travel guides about Italy, or did she volunteer with groups devoted to preventing nuclear war? She can't even remember whether she went by Pat or Trish for most of her adult life. Patricia loves all of her children, and though one of her lives may have been happier than the other, both had moments of beauty and truth. Must she choose between them?

This is a lovely, haunting book. It bears within it a lot of sadness, and it's by no means a light read, but it is just beautiful. I'm also impressed at the way Walton plays with the chronology, creating not one alternate history, but two. (I kept trying to figure out which of Patricia's lives was the "real" one, but neither exactly mirrors the world as we know it.) This is a book I know I'll want to revisit in the future, and I know it's one that will only improve upon rereading.
(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor is a gentle read set in the mountains of North Carolina.

Ever since her husband died, Aggie Duncan has had trouble keeping up the Sleepy Time Motel. Reluctantly, she decides that it may be time to sell. That decision will bring Willow and her father to the motel in search of a fresh start -- or at least Willow's father is in search of a fresh start. Willow is missing her old life: friends, house, and the mother who left her and her father behind. Loretta, a girl just a little younger than Willow, also finds herself at the Sleepy Time motel. She's on a personal quest, with the blessing of her adoptive family, to learn a little more about her recently deceased biological mother. Kirby and his mother are also guests at the motel, and unwilling ones at that, since they were on their way to Kirby's new military school when their car broke down. Kirby's been in trouble for a long time now, and this school is his last chance. Can he find a different pattern of behavior, or will he slip back into old habits?

This book is told in alternating perspectives, shifting back and forth between the children and adults staying at the motel. The narratives bump up against each other and weave loosely together as the characters interact and learn about each other and themselves. I never felt very connected to any of them, nor did I care strongly about the outcome of the story. That's not to say that it wasn't a pleasant book, just not one that is going to grab hold of the reader's imagination. The story has a strong sense of place, and since it's a place I'm familiar with, I was able to picture it clearly. Readers looking for this sort of gentle summer story may enjoy this book, though those looking for adventure and excitement should probably look elsewhere.
(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle is the sequel to Better Nate than Ever, so, you know, spoilers.

Nate Foster's Broadway dreams have been realized -- sort of. He's in New York, rehearsing for his role in E.T.: The Musical. And, okay, that role is an understudy part, but still! Nate has a lot to learn about the city, Broadway, and himself as opening night draws near. When an accident threatens to doom the show before it even opens, can Nate save the day?

This book is just as charming, funny, and heartwarming as its predecessor. Read that book first, then move right on to this one! I also recommend the audio version, which is read by the author. Federle does a great job of conveying Nate's youthful enthusiasm.

(Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire by Kristin Cashore is a reread for me -- this time, I listened to the audiobook.

In the kingdom of the Dells, there are normal creatures, and there are monsters. These monsters are lovely things, rainbow-hued versions of normal animals, but they have a horrifying ability to control the minds of others. Fire is the last human monster. She is determined to be the last, because her father was a true horror, nearly destroying the kingdom with his manipulations of the king. Even now, two years after his death, his legacy lives on in a splintered kingdom that could fall apart at any moment. Fire is not like her father, and she will never have children because she fears the power they could wield. In an attempt to help mend the country, Fire leaves her secluded country home and travels to the king's city. The voyage is perilous, and the city even more so. Fire finds herself caught between the king, who is extremely susceptible to her power, and his brother Brigan, who holds her in distrust because of her father's deeds. Warlords in various parts of the country are threatening attack, and Fire's powers can be useful in spying and interrogation, but she must decide what her limits are, and then hold fast to them even when others disapprove. Into this fraught situation comes a boy, one with strange powers and mismatched eyes. Is he a threat? Fire must find out the truth.

This book is a prequel to Graceling, but stands on its own well enough that I did not feel the need to go back and reread that book either before or after reading Fire. I don't like Fire quite as much as I like Graceling, but I found myself liking it better than I did after this reread. Part of that may be due to a skilled narrator -- I thought the narration in this audiobook was particularly well done -- and part may be due to balanced expectations this time around. The first time, I think I was always wishing for it to be a sequel to Graceling, rather than a companion work. I do think there are some pacing issues, particularly in the second half of the book, and Fire is not as compelling a character as Katsa in my opinion. However, the book's strengths far outweigh those few weaknesses, making it an enjoyable read for fantasy fans.

(Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman is a summer camp story with a mystical, paranormal twist.

Dahlia would rather be at math camp. Or magic camp -- she'd really, really rather be at magic camp, practicing her sleight-of-hand with other kids who don't think card tricks are dorky. But she made a deal with her parents: one session at Camp Arava, socializing with other kids who share her Jewish heritage, in exchange for a week at magic camp later in the summer. Dahlia resigns herself to nature hikes and mosquito bites. But almost as soon as Dahlia arrives at Camp Arava, strange things begin to happen. She sees two little girls in old-fashioned clothing who seem to disappear into the side of her cabin -- a trick she knows requires lots of special preparation. There's also a surly caretaker, an overgrown hedge maze, and a spooky legend about a man who once lived on the land where the camp was built. All of these bits and pieces seem connected somehow to David Schank, a rabbinical student from nearly 80 years ago, who may have stumbled over a powerful secret in his studies of Kabbalah -- a secret which put him in terrible danger. As Dahlia learns more about what Schank discovered, will she find herself in danger, too?

This impressive first novel manages to be creepy and fascinating. Dahlia's grumpy and begrudging attitude toward camp reads authentically for a kid her age, and many of the secondary characters are likewise distinct and interesting. The mystery is not too easy to solve, and the paranormal elements are genuinely spooky, though not overpoweringly so. Definitely recommended for readers who enjoy this sort of story.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein is a fun kids' book set in a fantastical, puzzle-filled library.

Kyle hasn't really bothered with that extra-credit assignment to write an essay about the town's new library -- big deal, it's just a library, right? But when he learns that the library was designed by Luigi Lemoncello, the eccentric millionaire game designer, and the twelve students who win the essay contest will get to be part of a lock-in with the potential for all kinds of wacky fun, he scribbles something down and hands it in. He spends the rest of the day trying to work on and then submit a better essay, even going so far as to locate Mr. Lemoncello's email address. The game's not over until it's over, he figures -- and sure enough, his last-ditch efforts get him the final spot in the library lock-in . . . which turns into a competition with difficult puzzles and fabulous prizes ("Like The Hunger Games, but with plenty of food and no bows and arrows," quips Mr. Lemoncello). Kyle and his friends form a team, working against the snotty rich kid who "never loses," but can teamwork and cooperation triumph over sneakiness and cunning?

This book is a lot of fun for its intended middle-grade readers. The library's attractions are described in a way sure to inspire envy, and the kids' adventures keep the plot moving briskly along. I'll be sure to recommend this to readers who like this sort of puzzle-based mystery story.

(Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Pure Dead Magic by Debi Gliori

Pure Dead Magic by Debi Gliori is a wacky juvenile fantasy adventure.

Titus and Pandora Strega-Borgia have problems. Their father has left the family, their mother is preoccupied with her witchcraft classes, and they have a no-nonsense new nanny. When they manage to accidentally shrink their baby sister and zap her into cyberspace, can they find a way to get her back? And has their father really left them, or did something much more sinister happen?

It's hard to summarize the plot of this book, because it's so wacky and interconnected. I can see kids really liking this series, as there's lots of action and gross humor. It's not one of those children's books that I'd recommend to other adults -- there's little character development, and the plot leaps around a bit in ways that don't always make logical sense. I won't be continuing with the series, but I'm glad to have read it so now I know what it's about.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord is a summer story about photography, loons, and friendship.

When Lucy's family moves to a lakeside cottage in New Hampshire, she is apprehensive about making new friends. When she meets Nate, the boy next door, she is relieved to find him friendly, though sad to discover that he is only visiting for the summer. Lucy joins Nate in a variety of summer activities, including kayaking out to observe a pair of nesting loons. Nate's Grandma Lilah has always loved the loons, but she is no longer able to go on the observational trips. In fact, Grandma Lilah is in the early stages of dementia, and this is probably her last summer at the lake, Lucy, an enthusiastic amateur photographer, captures images of the loons and of other activities she shares with Nate, in order to help Grandma Lilah feel included in the summer activities. Lucy plans to enter her summer photos into a competition -- but when she takes a telling photo that reveals Grandma Lilah's emotional state in a moment of distress, Lucy and Nate disagree about whether Lucy should use that photo. If Lucy wins the competition, she plans to use the prize money to rent a pontoon boat to take Grandma Lilah out to see the loons -- but is that a good enough reason to disregard Nate's feelings and risk her friendship with him?

This brief book really captures the feeling of a lakeside summer. That, and the complex emotional interactions between the characters, are its strongest points. The plot is a little scant, but the story is more about feelings and relationships than about events and adventures. Not even touched on in the above summary are Lucy's complex relationship with her father who is a professional photographer, and her interactions with Megan, a longtime friend of Nate's who obviously struggles with jealousy and becomes something of a frenemy to Lucy. This is a nice summertime read, but not a favorite of the year for me.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The World Outside by Eva Wiseman

The World Outside by Eva Wiseman is the story of a Hasidic girl in 1991 Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Chanie Altman loves to sing, but she knows she will never be able to perform. In her strict Lubavich community, women are not allowed to sing in front of men unless they are related to them. Chanie has always accepted the strictures of her community and religion, but when she meets David, a Jewish boy from a more progressive background, she begins to imagine what could be possible for her. David encourages her to apply to Julliard, and against all odds, she is granted an audition. Now Chanie must choose: will she leave everything she knows to follow her dream?

I found this book interesting, as I know very little about Chabad or Orthodox Judaism, or about the 1991 Crown Heights Riot which figures prominently in the book. I think this serves as a good introduction to these topics; it certainly inspired me to do a little more reading about them. On the other hand, I had a hard time believing in the instantaneous attraction between Chanie and David, and the lengths to which he went in order to see her. There were also a few spots where the dialogue was a little stilted.

To really discuss this book, I find I need to spoil the ending, so if you are interested in reading it and wish to remain unspoiled, stop here!

In the end, Chanie decides to remain with her family and not go to Julliard, even though she has auditioned and been accepted. This decision is partly due to a conversation with her mother, and partly due to other circumstances. I thought it was an interested authorial decision to have Chanie make the choice with is unexpected for readers of this sort of coming of age story, where the main character usually follows her dreams despite any sacrifices she might have to make. I would have found it a bit more believable if I'd had more of a sense that Chanie loved her religion and community; in the book she is mostly shown chafing at the restrictions placed upon her. The ending is definitely bittersweet.

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis is a Newbery Medal winner that I found entirely deserving of its honors.

Ten-year-old Bud has been passed from orphanage to foster home since he was six years old. When things go wrong at yet another foster home, he sets out on his own with just an old suitcase full of his most treasured belongings -- mostly mementos from his mother. After a few adventures and misadventures around town, Bud sets out from Flint, Michigan to Grand Rapids. He's off to find Herman E. Calloway, the man Bud believes to be his father. You see, his mother never told him who his father was, but she left behind some clues, including a handful of flyers for Herman E. Calloway's jazz band. Will Bud make it to Grand Rapids, and will he find a home there? You bet -- but neither of those things will happen in the way Bud expects!

This is a great book, both funny and heartwarming. Curtis always writes with such an authentic voice, you can tell he's one of those authors who remembers what it's like to be a kid. The story flows along with perfect pacing, and the period and setting are well-researched without being obtrusive. This is an excellent book which I highly recommend.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)