Thursday, March 26, 2015

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman is the long-awaited sequel to Seraphina. This review may contain some minor spoilers for Seraphina, so if my earlier review didn't drive you to pick that book up right away, you may want to skip reading this review until you do!

War is coming, and Seraphina and her fellow half-dragons may be the key to Goredd's survival. Seraphina, with her mental connection to the others, is the obvious person to draw them all together, but to do so she will have to travel through Nimys, Samsam, and Porphyry -- and she will face unique dangers in each location. Even more dangerous, however, is the one half-dragon Seraphina is not willing to face: devious Jannoula, who once betrayed Seraphina within the bounds of her own mind. If Jannoula finds out what Seraphina is doing, there's no doubt that she will try to cause trouble, but Jannoula is safely imprisoned . . . or is she?

I love this series so very much. Seraphina is a strong heroine, but her strength is primarily mental, and it's extraordinarily valuable as such. In this book, we see a great deal of character development for Seraphina as she faces her own biases and motivations for gathering her fellow half-dragons, and as she faces her history with and fears of Jannoula. And let me just say, Jannoula is one of the most chilling villains I've ever run across! The slow-burning romance that began in the last book continues to build, coming to a satisfying and surprising conclusion by the end of the book. That conclusion does tie up most of the loose ends, leaving just a few tantalizing details that may be explored in future books (the author has stated that she will write more books in that world, but they will focus on different main characters). So, if you were waiting to start this series, now is a good time to do so, as these two books make for a rich and satisfying read.
(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Fish in a Tree by Linda Hunt

Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt is the story of one girl's struggle to overcome her learning disability.

Ally's got a bit of a reputation as a class clown and occasional troublemaker. She's good with numbers and art, but has trouble reading because of the way the letters seem to move on the page. She makes her difficulties into a joke, and she's fooled a lot of teachers so far. But when Mr. Daniels, a long-term sub, takes over for her regular teacher, he sees Ally's smart, creative side in a way that nobody else ever has. Over time, Mr. Daniels helps Ally overcome her difficulties while celebrating her unique skills and talents.

This book falls firmly into the category of "inspirational teacher story," as you can see from the summary above. There aren't a huge number of novels featuring dyslexic protagonists out there, so there's some value in that. I was displeased to find that this book perpetuates the "Einstein did poorly in school" urban legend that's been pretty well debunked; I thought the book would have been better served if the author had used a less controversial example of a famous person who struggled with academics. On the other hand, Ally's voice is smart and funny, and that made for an enjoyable read.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Etruscan Time by Tracy Barrett

On Etruscan Time by Tracy Barrett is a story of archaeology and time travel.

Hector is not excited about accompanying his mother to Italy for an archaeological dig -- he'd rather be hanging out with his friends all summer, sleeping until noon, playing video games, and going to the pool. But he can't help but be interested in the dig site, especially when one archaeologist encourages him to help out, showing him how to excavate in a practice area that's not part of the official dig site. When Hector discovers an eye-shaped token, the archaeologist dismisses it as a modern piece, probably dropped by a tourist, and allows Hector to keep it. The token proves to be more ancient, and more magical, than anyone could have guessed. It transports Hector back to Etruscan times, where he meets a boy named Arath, the original owner of the token. Arath is in trouble, and it seems that Hector has been brought to that time specifically to help him. But what can one boy from the the twenty-first century do?

Meh. Another all-right-but-not-great read. As an adult reader, I was more interested in the adults' backstory than in Hector's time-travel adventures. And as far as young readers are concerned, the book gets off to a rather slow start. Unless they have a particular interest in archaeology, they're not likely to keep going for the promise of more adventure later in the book. It's not a bad story, just not one that's particularly compelling.

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

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton is a much-hyped YA fantasy set in a not-too-distant future.

Quin, John, and Shinobu have trained for years for this. Soon, they will take the Oath and become Seekers, guardians of an ancient magical artifact called an athame, defenders of truth, warriors of justice. But when John fails to perform well in their last training fight, Quin's father Briac, the training master, informs John that he will not be taking the oath with the others. John's journey is over before it had a chance to begin. As it turns out, this may have been for the best, as Quin and Shinobu are about to discover: you see, Seekers may once have been defenders of truth and justice, but now they are little more than hired killers. Now, on one side are Quin and Shinobu, sick with regret over what they have become, on another side is Briac, determined to enforce the young Seekers' oath, and on a third side is John, nursing a grudge for more than just his recent bad treatment at Briac's hands and determined to do whatever it takes to gain control of the athame. It's a volatile combination, and the ensuing action will range from the Scottish highlands, to downtown Hong Kong, to an airship floating over London. Who will prevail?

This book's publishers have hyped it so much that it can't possibly live up to its reputation. However, if you've somehow missed out on the hype and can take it at face value, it's not a bad story. Quin's character could stand to be a little more fleshed out, but many of the secondary characters are satisfactorily complex. The premise is interesting, and I will probably continue reading the series to see where it goes. Readers who like young adult fantasy with plenty of action should take a look at this book.

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is this year's Newbery Medalist.

Twelve-year-old Josh Bell is a basketball player, just like his dad, hoping to be as famous as his dad was, someday. Josh and his twin brother Jordan have been inseparable, on the court and off, all their lives. This year, though, things are changing. Jordan has a girlfriend, and Josh is, let's face it, a little bit jealous. When a spur-of-the-moment bad choice leads to Josh's suspension from the basketball team, he has to face up to more than one issue in his life and in his family.

More than a novel about basketball, this is a story of family dynamics that tugs the heartstrings with its pitch-perfect voice. I'm loving the fact that this Newbery medal winner is a book that I'll be able to recommend to all kinds of readers: sports fans, lovers of verse novels, readers who like a good story about siblings and families . . . really, anyone who enjoys a good, solid read.

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

The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes

The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes is a YA novel about, love, war, and the similarities between the two!

Lainey Mitchell had a great junior year, her summer is off to an epic start, and senior year promises to be all that she could want: co-captain of the soccer team, student body vice-president, and maybe even homecoming queen beside her long-time boyfriend Jason. And then, out of the blue, Jason shows up at the coffee shop where Lainey works, and dumps her. Lainey is not about to take this lying down. With the help of her best friend Bianca and an ancient Chinese warlord, Lainey devises a plan. That's right: she decides to take her cues from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. She teams up with Micah, a male coworker who has also recently been dumped, and together the two scheme to make their exes jealous and, hopefully, win them back. But just when Lainey's plan seems to be working, she must decide: does she still want to win this battle?

This is a cute, fairly typical YA romance. I picked it up because of the premise (The Art of War? Really?) which worked pretty well. It's going to be obvious to readers from the start that Lainey's boyfriend is a jerk and Micah is the guy she ought to end up with, but romance novels are all about watching how two characters end up together, so major plot twists are not required if the story is good. I think this will appeal to readers who love YA romance -- for me, it was an okay read, but not a great one.

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John is a hilarious tale of pranksters at war.

Miles Murphy is a prankster. He was the best prankster at his old school, and now that his family has moved to boring Yawnee Valley, he fully expects to be the best prankster at his new school. There's just one problem: his new school already has a prankster. A really good one. Better than Miles? Perhaps. The only way to settle the issue is, of course, a prank war. The results are epic, but there's one thing that could top them: the two pranksters working together on one enormous, unforgettable prank that will astonish the entire school.

This book is just plain fun. It's a quick read that will have you laughing out loud more than once or twice. Of course, as a sworn member of the International Order of Disorder (I had to join in order to get a signed copy of this book) I'm obligated to support the literary efforts of my fellow members. Perhaps this is the most boring book ever, and this review is all one big prank! To find out for sure, you'll just have to read it for yourself. Heh, heh, heh.

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

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold is a lovely story of friendship, adventure, loss, and imagination.

Rudger is Amanda's best friend. Of course, he's imaginary, but neither Amanda nor Rudger is bothered by this. Then, one day, Mr. Bunting comes to the door. Unlike any other adult in the world, Mr. Bunting can see Rudger -- but this is definitely not a good thing. It's obvious from their first meeting that there's something wrong with Mr. Bunting, something ominous about him. When a later run-in with the man causes an accident that separates Rudger and Amanda, Rudger must run for his life to escape Mr. Bunting and get back to Amanda . . . but can an imaginary boy survive on his own, without his real-world friend?

This book works so well on so many levels. The characters are quirky and fun, the plot moves right along, there are some scary bits and some funny bits -- kids will love this book. There's also pathos and attention to detail (the cat's name is Oven, and I won't tell you why that is significant, but it is) and depth -- adults will love this book. I can see it working really well as a classroom read-aloud for second or third graders, though it might be a little too scary for children any younger than that. Also, it is fabulously illustrated by the talented Emily Gravett. This may be the best book I've read so far this year. Highly recommended.

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a brief story of an English schoolgirl whose world opens up when she meets two boys from Mongolia.

Sixth-grader Julie is mostly interested in getting her crush's attention and finding a way to get her popular friend to invite Julie over to her house after school, until the day she meets Chingis and Nergui. Charismatic Chingis, who is able to talk Julie's teacher into allowing his younger brother to stay in their classroom instead of being sent to a lower grade, appoints Julie as the brothers' 'good guide.' Julie takes her new role seriously, spending free time with Chingis and Nergui and doing a report on Mongolia which she shares with the class. She tries to extend their friendship beyond the classroom, hoping to see where the boys live, but when she finally achieves this goal, she gets an unexpected glimpse into the fear that Chingis and his family live with from day to day. When the family is abruptly deported, Julie is left with questions that haunt her well into adulthood.

This is an interesting book, almost surreal in places (this effect is amplified by the Polaroid-style illustrations sprinkled throughout), but also grimly realistic in its portrayal of a family caught in a difficult situation. In the Author's Note at the end, Boyce mentions that the story was inspired by real-life events. Though this is a quick read, I think it will appeal more to adults than to children.

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

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is three books in one, linked together by a mysterious harmonica.

Friedrich is a musical boy in 1933 Germany, where political tensions run high. His outspoken father, recently retired from the Hohner harmonica factory where Friedrich and his uncle Gunter still work, opposes Hitler and his ideas about racial purity -- but Friedrich's older sister Elisabeth has just started getting involved with the League of German Girls. When Friedrich, who was born with a port wine stain covering half of his face, is in danger from the new regime and his father is in danger for speaking out against it, what will become of Friedrich and his family?

Mike is a scrappy orphan in 1935 Philadelphia. Above all else, he wants to stay together with his younger brother Frankie, but it's rare for two orphans to be placed together from their orphanage. When, against the odds, the two brothers are placed with a wealthy lady, Mike knows it's too good to be true. The lady wanted a girl, not two boys. Mike knows that Frankie, with his winning personality, can charm their new guardian -- and perhaps he can find his own place in the world, maybe even in Hoxie's Philadelphia Harmonica Band. Is there any way that the brothers can stay together, or will Mike have to sacrifice to give Frankie his best chance?

Ivy is a migrant worker's daughter in 1942 California. Her father has just gotten a good job managing a farm for a Japanese resident who has been relocated to a internment camp, and Ivy is crushed because that will mean moving away from her favorite teacher and her best friend, just days before she was to have a solo in her class harmonica concert on the radio. In her new home, Ivy is dismayed to discover that the school system is segregated and Mexican students are bused to a separate elementary school. In facing this injustice in her life, she also reflects on the greater injustice faced by Japanese residents like the Yamamoto family who own the farm where her father now works. But when Ivy and her mother go to the Yamamoto house to check for rodents or any other damage, Ivy finds a mysterious locked door at the back of a closet. What secrets have the house's owners hidden away? Are they really enemies of America, as some of the neighbors believe?

This is a hefty chunk of a book, since it is really three books in one, tied together with a fairy-tale-like frame story and a unique harmonica that makes its way into the hands of each of the three children in turn. However, I found it a fast, well-paced read with interesting characters and a gripping plot. The dialogue is a little teach-y in spots, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the book. I liked how the author tied the events of each story together at the end of the book. In my opinion, the frame story was the weakest bit of the book, but perhaps that was just because I was expecting historical fiction and the fantasy element seemed slightly out of place. Nevertheless, this is a good book that will be enjoyed by both young readers and adults.

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