Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2014 Chapter Book Roundup

Every year, I like to take a look back at my favorites before the announcement of the ALA Youth Media Awards.  Since those are just a little more than a week away (where did January go?), I'd better hop to it! This year I've been having a hard time gathering my thoughts about my favorite books.  I've decided I'm not going to even attempt a Young Adult roundup -- my YA reading has just been too scattered, and I haven't been trying to read noteworthy YA books at all.  And, while I'll post about some favorite picture books and chapter books, I don't have one standout title in either field.  Some years are like that, I guess . . .

So, favorite chapter books:

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (my review) -- This may be my personal favorite of the year.  I loved the world-building, the mystery, the characters.  Do I really think this will win?  Nah, probably not.  But it's one I know I will often revisit.

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire (my review) -- Russia!  Fairy tales!  Feisty heroines!  I ate this one up.  It's maybe a little ponderous and self-conscious at times, but it's also just so good.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus (my review) -- Another story with fairy tales interwoven and elements of historical fiction, this one also has a really complex and intriguing main character.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (my review) -- This is the one I think will actually win, and I know a lot of people will be disappointed if it doesn't.  Actually, I think this will take an honor, and the medal winner will be something that nobody's talked about very much, probably something that I haven't even read.  Guess we'll find out!
El Deafo by Cece Bell (my review) -- So, the last title I mentioned was a verse memoir, and this one is a graphic memoir.  It's been an interesting year for the middle-grade memoir.  Do I really think this will win?  Well, I'm not sure a graphic novel ever can win the Newbery, given the criteria, but if one did, I think this just might be it. 

That's where I'll stop with this post.  I've read a few others that might be contenders, but I'm just not completely sold on any of them.  I really feel like I'm missing something this year.  Care to fill in the blanks?  What are your picks for this year's Newbery?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes

Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes is an angsty YA novel set in a Midwestern high school.

Anika Dragomir feels like an outsider in her white-bread high school, despite the fact that she is the third most popular girl in school. Her angst is exacerbated when nerd-turned-hottie Logan McDonough starts giving her rides home from school. Anika kind of likes Logan -- okay, really likes Logan -- but she know that she would get endless flack from Becky, the top most popular girl, if she were to date outsider Logan. Anika's romantic troubles are further complicated when THE Jared Kline, possibly the most popular guy in town, or maybe the state, starts showing an interest in her. Sure, it's flattering, but is he just a scam artist who will use her and drop her as soon as he gets bored? And what about Logan and their sweet, secret romance?

I read this for my book club, and I foresee some interesting discussion ensuing. Anika's narrative voice was, to me, really annoying. I had a hard time liking her, or even relating to her. Despite the title, I didn't see her as a misfit -- in fact, I began to wonder if the title was supposed to refer to her, or to Logan (who probably qualifies as a misfit, but we don't get nearly as much insight into his character as we do into hers). Anika is a pretty, popular girl from a middle-class family. She has 99 problems, and all of them are first-world problems, mostly caused by her own bad choices. Okay, so she's a teenager, I can usually look past that in a YA book. But the writing was not as tight as I would like it to be. For one thing, the book is interspersed with short chapters, set apart by being typeset in italics, that are foreshadowing of the book's final events -- the character is pedaling on a bike, heading toward some cataclysmic event. I'd have been fine with one chapter like that at the beginning, or conversely I'd have been fine if each successive foreshadowing chapter revealed more key details, but they really didn't reveal anything new or add anything to the story. Also, as we might surmise, Anika is the one riding the bike in the foreshadowing chapters, but it's never mentioned in the earlier parts of the story that she even has a bike. Instead, we get her whining about her long walk home from school. Hmm, I see a solution here... One more criticism: I feel like it's just a little bit lazy when authors from my generation write YA novels and set them in the high school of the '80s or '90s, especially when there's not a strong reason within the plot for the book to be set in the present day. Granted, in this case the author mentions that the book is partially based on her own high-school experience, but seeing as it is fiction and not memoir, perhaps the pop culture references and such could have been updated a bit. I can't find a plot-based reason why the characters are name-checking Madonna and Bruce Willis instead of Lady Gaga and Orlando Bloom, or whoever kids these days name-check. Maybe I am being too picky, because the book did grab me once I got past being irritated at the narrative voice and settled into the story. I think this will appeal to fans of YA realistic fiction along the lines of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it wasn't really my cup of tea.

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Rain Reign by Ann Martin

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is an emotionally evocative book about a girl and her dog.

Rose, a high-functioning autistic 12-year-old, loves homonyms and prime numbers, her Uncle Weldon, and her dog Rain. Her father is often harsh, her mother is gone, and her classmates are not particularly friendly, so Rose treasures the few bright spots in her life. When her father lets Rain out without her collar in the aftermath of a hurricane, Rain is lost, but Rose soon makes a plan to find Rain again. Will she succeed?

I like to shoot straight with people in my reviews of dog books, so I will tell you this: the dog does not die, but this book will still make you cry. Martin does a good job of capturing the relationship between Rose and Rain without descending into sappiness. My only criticism of the book is that the ending felt rushed to me -- certain things happened and were never explained fully. On the other hand, that's quite similar to real life, especially for kids in situations similar to Rose's, so perhaps I shouldn't complain. I would recommend this book to readers who like stories featuring animals and don't mind a little sadness along the way.

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Spirit's Key by Edith Cohn

Spirit's Key by Edith Cohn is a paranormal adventure for the middle-grade set.

Spirit's father has the family gift: when he holds someone's house key, he can tell them what might happen in their future. But lately he's been having more and more trouble getting good readings. Spirit, meanwhile, is preoccupied in her own grief: her dog Sky died mysteriously, and since he was one of the island's despised wild dogs that Spirit had domesticated, she gets little sympathy from the locals. When other wild dogs start dying, Spirit begins to suspect that someone is killing them -- but when a few village residents become ill, the local prejudice threatens to overwhelm the situation. Spirit, with the help of a new human friend and the ghost of her beloved dog, must find some way to save the wild dogs and the island's residents from impending disaster -- all while coping with her own budding paranormal gift.

There's a lot going on in this story, but it all comes together well. I didn't feel like the mystery element was particularly strong, but then again, the story is trying to do more than just be a mystery, what with the paranormal elements and the dogs and all. I found it a little lacking, but I may just not have been in the mood for this kind of story.

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bomb by Steven Sheinkin

Bomb: The Race to Build -- and Steal -- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin is juvenile nonfiction at its absolute best.

During World War II, one of the most decisive battles was fought, not on a battlefield, but in a laboratory. The race to build the atomic bomb was on, and pretty much all of the world's top physicists were working on the problem in one way or another, for one major power or another. In Los Alamos, New Mexico, scientists from the Manhattan Project, headed up by Robert Oppenheimer, worked tirelessly to build and test the American bomb -- but a few of them were also leaking secrets to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, American spies worked hard to sabotage Germany's nuclear efforts, despite not knowing exactly what German scientists knew, or even where they were.

This is an amazingly gripping and readable work of nonfiction. The pacing is excellent as the author switches from one story to another, and he does a great job of making the historical figures come alive without sacrificing historical accuracy. And his brief summation of the Cold War and the development of more powerful weapons at the end of the book is quite chilling. I listened to the audiobook and found myself completely captivated by it. I'd recommend this title for its intended audience (ages 9-14), but also for adults like myself, with an interest but not a lot of knowledge on the topic of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first nuclear weapons.

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mouseheart by Lisa Fiedler

Mouseheart by Lisa Fiedler is a juvenile adventure story featuring mice and rats.

Hopper's life started in a Brooklyn pet store, and it looks like it's going to end there. When Hopper and his siblings overhear that the pet store owner is about to sell them as snake food, they know they must do something drastic right away. The ensuing escape results in Hopper and his siblings being split up. Hopper finds himself in the sewers, where he meets up with a friendly, streetwise young rat named Zucker, who also happens to be the prince of the underground rat kingdom of Atlantia. This kingdom seems like a paradise to Hopper, especially since, as a friend of the prince, he is given a lavish royal welcome. However, all is not as it seems in the kingdom, and revolutionaries threaten to bring it down from the outside. All Hopper wants to do is to be reunited with his lost siblings -- but does he have a larger role to play?

This animal fantasy was, for me, just an okay read. I thought it was a little predictable, and Hopper's extreme naivete, though believable, was irritating to me. I'll recommend this to kids who can't get enough of this sort of story, but everyone else can probably pass on this one.

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a delightfully macabre Victorian tale.

The seven students at St. Ethelreda's School for Young Ladies have little in common, but one thing they all agree on is that they don't care much for their headmistress Constance Plackett, and even less for her oily brother Aldous Golding. So, when both headmistress and brother drop dead over Sunday dinner, the girls mostly feel a mild regret that they will be split up -- for, despite their differences, they all get along quite well together. And then, they hit upon an idea: what if they were to bury the corpses in the back garden and just . . . carry on? Of course, this plan doesn't take into account Mr. Golding's surprise birthday party, or the visit from Mrs. Plackett's solicitor, or the Strawberry Social. Not to mention that it's hardly coincidence that both Mrs. Plackett and Mr. Golding dropped dead at the same meal. Poison was almost certainly involved, but who administered it? Was it Disgraceful Mary Jane Marshall, seeing a way to escape the strictures of boarding school life? Smooth Kitty Heaton, who proves to be such a competent organizer when Mrs. Plackett is out of the way? Dour Elinor Siever, with her unhealthy fascination with death? Or was it someone from outside the school? Who could it be -- and why?

This book is a delightful romp. I had so much fun reading it. I particularly enjoyed how the author differentiated the girls by using their adjectives (i.e. Disgraceful Mary Jane, not just Mary Jane) throughout -- that was by no means the sum of their characters, but it proved a useful method for keeping all of them straight in my head. The mystery was clever and by no means obvious, and the little romances were charming side-notes to the story. If this sounds like your sort of thing, you should give it a try!

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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell is the story of a wild orphan transplanted from Zimbabwe to a London boarding school.

Wilhelmina Silver has always been allowed to run a little bit wild. She lives on the farm where her father is the overseer, and she has her best friend Simon, her horse and her monkey, fruit ripe for the picking, and the freedom to go wherever she wants and spend her days however she chooses. When disaster strikes and Will is shipped off to boarding school, she might as well have been sent to another planet. Grief-stricken and claustrophobic, Will decides to run away . . . but London is not like Africa. Where can she go to find the wide-open spaces she craves?

This book reminded me strongly of Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan, as the main characters in both books had the same strong affection for Africa. All in all, though, I'd say this book is not quite as strong. The characterization is good, but the pacing is problematic -- so much time is spent setting up Will's idyllic existence at the beginning of the book, that the reader (at least, any reader who has read the jacket copy) is left waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, and for Will to be sent away to London. In comparison with the leisurely beginning, the London parts of the story feel a bit rushed, and the ending wraps up a little too neatly. I did enjoy reading this story despite its issues, but I'm not sure who I would recommend it to.

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My True Love Gave to Me, edited by Stephanie Perkins

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories is a holiday short story collection edited by Stephanie Perkins, featuring stories by some of the hottest names in YA right now: Holly Black, Gayle Foreman, Laini Taylor, Rainbow Rowell, and more. Though, naturally, some stories are better than others, the overall quality of this anthology is high.

My personal favorites were "It's a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown" by Stephanie Perkins, "Welcome to Christmas, CA" by Kiersten White, "The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer" by Laini Taylor, and of course "Midnights" by Rainbow Rowell. "Polaris is Where You'll Find Me" by Jenny Han struck me as the weakest of the lot, and I didn't particularly care for "Krampuslauf" by Holly Black, though that's more a matter of taste than of quality (Holly Black is a hit-or-miss author for me). Also, because I used to live in Oklahoma, I spent more time while reading "Star of Bethlehem" trying to pinpoint the geography than I did actually enjoying the story. I'm not convinced that Ally Carter has ever been to Oklahoma. My main issue with the book as a whole was that it led off with the story that should have been saved for the grand finale. That's obviously a minor issue, because on the whole I found this collection an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a light, seasonal story or twelve.

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier is the first book in a darkly atmospheric fantasy series.

Not really all that long ago, canny gifts were valued in Alban. That was before Keldec took the throne and set up his network of Enforcers and Enthrallers, to make sure that all magic users were either in service to the king . . . or dead. Neryn has seen the devastation wrought by the king's men first-hand, when they burned her village and destroyed her grandmother's mind. She knows she must keep her own gifts hidden as she and her father travel from town to town, always on the run. Neryn thought her life couldn't get much worse, but when her father wagers her in a game of chance to a mysterious cloaked man, she feels as if the bottom has fallen out of her meager existence. The stranger offers her a choice: she may go her own way, or accept his protection on her journey. Choosing to travel alone, Neryn makes her way north toward Shadowfell, where rumor has it that a band of rebels has a stronghold and people with canny gifts are accepted and trained. On her way, Neryn learns that her own gift is something out of the ordinary, even for a magic user -- and the king's forces are hot on her heels because of it. If Neryn doesn't want to end up as a weapon for King Keldec, she must make it to Shadowfell. To do so, she'll face constant danger, harsh weather, and a series of unexpected encounters as she proves herself and hones her magical gift.

This book is excellent in all sorts of ways. The setting is vivid in all of its harsh, rocky dampness. The plot is strong, connected to the history of the land and the events that took place before the book begins. The characters are few but fully realized, and I've got to say that Flint is one of those slow-smoldering book crushes that you don't see coming until wham you're head over heels. (Probably doesn't hurt that I found myself basically picturing him as a younger Aragorn.) All in all, this is a book that readers of YA fantasy should definitely take a closer look at.

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