Friday, January 11, 2019

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Frances dreams of making fabulous creations, rather than the ordinary dresses sewn in the shop where she works. When she creates a shocking masterpiece for a customer, she almost loses her job, but an intriguing (and lucrative) offer from a stranger takes her to the palace itself. She will be Prince Sebastian’s seamstress. The Prince has a secret known only to his valet: occasionally, he likes to wear dresses. As Lady Crystallia, he wows society with Frances’s daring creations. But as long as his identity is secret, Frances must remain unknown as well. And if it became known that Prince Sebastian was Lady Crystallia, what would happen?

I’d been hearing good things about this graphic novel, and it was indeed just as charming as I had heard. The artwork is lovely (plenty of gorgeous swirling fabrics, for one thing) and the story is sweet. If you enjoy graphic novels with a romantic plot line, I definitely recommend this one.

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Blended by Sharon Draper

Isabella’s parents are divorced, so she is swapped between families each week. As a pre-teen, she’s confronting issues of identity: being biracial, should she identify as Black? White? Both? An unpleasant incident at school brings these questions to the forefront, but she’s also wrestling with feelings about changes in her family, plus the normal turmoil of growing up.

A powerful and well-written story, Draper does a great job with characterization as always. Isabella reminded me strongly of other pre-teen girls I have known. If you enjoy realistic juvenile fiction, add this to your list. I’d also say this is a great book to recommend to young readers who are not quite ready to read The Hate You Give.

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

"A Woodlands heart always finds its way home."

It's what Cervus the Great Stag told Philippa, Jamie, and Evelyn when they arrived in the Woodlands, called out of the misery and terror of hiding in a London bomb shelter into the beauty and serenity of the forest. And it's what Cervus told them, five and a half years later, when he sent them back and told them that he would not be able to call them again. Life after the Woodlands has been an adjustment for all three of them. Jamie has set his mind on conquering academics and making his way in this world, and Philippa has done the same, albeit with lipstick and nylons and school projects and social clubs. But Evelyn's Woodlands heart refuses to accept the return to this world, and she pines for what she considers her true home. She wanders the forests around her boarding school late at night, often without shoes or coat, yearning for the same call that drew her away before -- and Philippa, outwardly so collected and sophisticated, has been doing all she can to help Evelyn adjust. But now Philippa has gone away to school in America, leaving Evelyn on her own for the first time since they returned. Will Evelyn be able to finally make her way in this world?

This is a beautiful book, full of deep emotion and difficult choices. One gets the sense that there can't really be a happy ending for these characters, though one hopes for certain outcomes above others. The narration follows Evelyn for the first half of the book, immersing the reader in Evelyn's desperate longing for her other world, and then switches to Philippa for the second half of the book, adding complexity to the emotional tone as one learns more about both sisters. Layered in with Evelyn's narration are snippets of their lives in the Woodlands, and interspersed with Philippa's are memories of life after the Woodlands but before the book's current events. Both sisters relate strongly to art (poetry for Evelyn, visual art for Philippa) as a means of making sense of their lives and emotions.

Though you certainly can understand and enjoy this book without having read The Chronicles of Narnia, if you have read those books, you can't help but see how this book takes those events and characters and asks, "What if?" What might happen after Narnia, to someone like Lucy who loved that world with all her heart? Why might Susan have made the decision to become very grown up, as far from her fantasy-realm self as possible? I felt that this book was both a love letter to and a criticism of Narnia. However, I didn't find the Woodlands sections themselves very compelling, which is why I'd rate this book 4.5 instead of 5 stars -- there just wasn't enough depth there to really convey why Evelyn felt such an emotional connection. Understandable, since this book isn't really about the Woodlands, it's about life after. Still, I felt that those portions paled in comparison with the rest of the book, which brought tears to my eyes more than once. Highly recommended both to those who loved and still love Narnia, and to those who loved but found themselves disillusioned by it later on.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Kroscozka

This complex graphic memoir tells the story of Krosoczka’s childhood, up to his high school graduation. The author was raised mostly by his grandparents, due to his mother’s heroin addiction. He doesn’t flinch away from the darker details, but paints a courageous picture of both the difficulties and the warmth of the family surrounding him. Recommended for teens and adults, but not for Krosoczka’s younger fans!

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

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Spensa has dreamed of being a fighter pilot like her father ever since she can remember. Unfortunately, her father fled from a pivotal battle and was shot down by his own squadron and branded a coward, so the likelihood of her being allowed to attend flight school, much less pilot a spacecraft, seems pretty low. Spensa knows that her father was a hero, not a coward -- and she also knows that she could be the best pilot on the planet if they would just let her. Can her sheer determination to find a way or make one get her where she wants to go?

This is a fast, gripping read. I never liked Spensa much, but in spite of that, I found myself wanting her to succeed. (And many of the secondary characters were a lot of fun.) The plotting is all you might expect from Sanderson, with twists and turns galore. Improbable points in the worldbuilding turn out to fit perfectly within the book's internal logic later on, and the book is wrapped up satisfactorily, though the promised sequel can't come soon enough. If you enjoy sci-fi, or Sanderson's other books, don't miss this one.

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

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Ya Glaser

It's summer, and the Vanderbeeker siblings have no intention of taking on a gardening project, as Miss Josie and Mr. Jeet encourage them to do. But when a sudden health problem besets Mr. Jeet, they have a change of heart. They ask the distracted minister of the church they attend if they can create a garden in a overgrown lot, and he doesn't actually say no, so they charge ahead with their plan. But many challenges beset them -- and even if they manage to complete the project, will Mr. Jeet be well enough to enjoy it?

Another charming Vanderbeeker story! Of course, as I'm a big fan of The Secret Garden, to which this book obviously owes a debt, my fondness for it may not come as a surprise. I thought some of the gardening elements may have been a little bit simplified and smoothed out for the intrepid Vanderbeekers, but it's a sweet book, bubbling over with goodwill and enthusiasm, much like its young protagonists. Recommended if you liked the first book, or if you enjoy middle grade realistic fiction with a wholesome vibe.

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

You Don't Know Everything, Jilly P.! by Alex Gino

Jilly P thinks she knows a few things about interacting with people who are Black and Deaf -- she has Black family members, and a Black, Deaf online friend. But when her baby sister is born deaf, she finds she still has a lot to learn about that, and about other things happening in the world as well.

This was a good, quick read, with great characters. It's didactic in spots, but the author's note makes it clear that it was written with didactic intent. I thought it was interesting that Jilly and her friend never had to face up to the low-level bullying that they were doing in their chat room, but maybe that's a topic for another book -- after all, everybody in this world still has things to learn.

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

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

It’s 3:00 in the morning when Granny tells Louisiana to get in the car, because the day of reckoning has arrived. It’s time to break the curse that hangs over them. Shortly after crossing the state line from Florida to Georgia, Granny’s teeth begin to bother her so much that she can’t continue on. After some emergency dental surgery, Granny and Louisiana land at the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel — and that’s just the beginning of Louisiana’s story. There will be tears and songs and cake and forgiveness before it’s all told, not to mention friendship and several bags of peanuts.

Sometimes I read a quirky Southern story with an obnoxiously folksy feel to it, and I wonder why I bother. But then I pick up a book by Kate DiCamillo. And when tears are rolling down my face as I turn the final page, I remember. Doggone it, Kate, you did it again.

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Long-Lost Home by Maryrose Wood

Plucky governess Penelope Lumley is exiled to Russia, while the Incorrigible children are back at Ashton Place, at the mercy of the enigmatic Edward Ashton. Moreover, the curse on the Ashton family seems to be coming to a head. Will all of the disparate elements come together in time?

This book does a good job of tying up all of the loose ends of the series. If you’ve enjoyed it up to this point, you should find this a satisfying read. It’s been a while since I read the last book, so some of the details were a little hazy — I recommend having the other books fresh in your memory, if possible.

Side note: The author dedicated the book to Katy, or Katherine Kellgren, audiobook narrator of the first five books in the series, who passed away earlier this year. There’s a touching author’s note at the end. It brought a tear to my eye, for sure.
(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Six students in a Brooklyn elementary school are given one hour a week to just talk together, with no adults present. As they share their stories, friendship and understanding develops among them.

I was skeptical of the premise at first — that it would be allowed, and that it would result in the deep discussion that happens in the book. Woodson sells me on that, at least with this group of characters. There’s not much plot to this book; it seems to be mostly focused on showing how many current events and concerns relate to kids on a personal level. As an adult reader, I thought the lessons being imparted were a little too obvious, but I’d be interested to see how kids react. The writing is strong, though the decision to represent dialogue with italics rather than quotation marks bugged me. Recommended to readers of realistic juvenile fiction, particularly teachers, as I can see this being useful in a classroom setting.

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