Saturday, November 7, 2015

When We Wake by Karen Healey

When We Wake by Karen Healey is a fast-paced sci-fi novel featuring a girl brought back from the dead.

Tegan died from a stray bullet at a political rally, and woke up a hundred years later. Her body had been frozen and donated to science, and now science has advanced far enough to make such feats of cryogenics possible. Tegan is part of a high-profile government project. She's told that discoveries related to her reawakening will be used to help wounded military, and as the daughter of a fallen serviceman, she's glad to be part of that effort. The problem is, Tegan isn't being told the truth about the project -- and when she goes poking around to learn more, she could put herself and the few new friends she's made in terrible danger.

This is a fast-paced story with a good balance of action and depth. Some readers may find the ending a little unsatisfactory, but it is the beginning of a series, so any dangling threads should be picked up in the next book.

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

Friday, November 6, 2015

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate is an imaginary friend story that deals with some serious real-life issues.

Back when he was six, Jackson had an imaginary friend named Crenshaw, an enormous black and white cat. That was when his family was going through a rough time, living out of their minivan. Now, at the end of his fourth-grade year, it looks like those bad times may be returning as his family falls behind in the rent and holds a big yard sale in hopes of paying off some bills. Jackson is too old for an imaginary friend, and way too serious for one -- but nevertheless, Crenshaw is back. Can he help Jackson process the issues his family faces?

First of all, the good: I really liked the family dynamics portrayed in this book. Jackson's family is loving but flawed, and that comes across well in the writing. On the other hand, for a book dealing with such weighty issues, this one felt slight to me, not as meaty and satisfying as it could have been. Part of the issue was, I think, that so much of the book is spent describing the past, when I wanted to see more of the present. All in all, a fairly good read if you are interested in this sort of book, but it doesn't pack the same emotional punch as Applegate's Newbery winner, The One and Only Ivan.

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz is an exceptionally good work of historical fiction and definitely one of my top five reads so far this year.

It's 1911, and Joan is desperate for a better life. Ever since her mother died, she has been responsible for all of the "women's work" at Steeple Farm, and now that she's 14, her father expects her to leave school and work all the harder. Joan sees no end to the drudgery, and when a standoff with her father results in the burning of her few, prized books, she determines to run away. In Baltimore, Joan hopes to find work as a hired girl -- she may have to work just as hard as she would back on the farm, but she might make as much as six dollars a week! Of course, things don't go as smoothly as she might have hoped, and she finds herself in Baltimore after dark, alone and scared after a run-in with a man who means her no good. She's hesitant to trust another stranger when she's approached by gentle Solomon Rosenbach, who takes Joan home to meet his mother. The upshot of this encounter is that Joan, a devout Catholic girl, finds herself in the employ of the Jewish Rosenbachs. In the months that follow, Joan learns a great deal about the world, religion, love, and herself. She makes mistakes and learns from them, sees things she'd never dreamed about back on the farm, and develops a terrible crush on David Rosenbach, Solomon's younger brother! She also lies about her age, a falsehood that troubles her greatly -- but if the Rosenbachs knew she was just 14, would they send her back to her father?

I can hardly do this book justice in a review. I've heard it described as a modern classic, and I have to concur. Joan's naivete, her struggles to better herself, her foibles and insights, all ring so true and clear. I'm reminded of favorites like Anne of Green Gables. Schlitz's handling of religion in the story is impressive. The secondary characters, setting, plot -- oh, everything about this book is just so good! This is one of my rare five-star reads -- highly recommended!

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Valiant by Sarah McGuire

Valiant by Sarah McGuire is a retelling of "The Brave Little Tailor" with plenty of heart.

Saville has a complicated relationship with her father, the tailor. He's always loved his craft more than he loves her -- if, indeed, he loves her at all. Now he is determined to travel to the big city and ply his trade for the court, or maybe even the king. Saville doesn't doubt that he's talented enough to do it -- but she hates leaving her mother's grave and everything she has ever known in order to pursue her father's dream. Shortly after their arrival in the city, the tailor is struck with a sudden illness. He can neither speak nor sew, and it's up to Saville to provide for both of them. Though she doesn't love sewing, she is nearly as good at it as her father is. She decides to dress as a boy and pass herself off as the tailor's apprentice, and she even manages to gain a commission from the king. But then the giants arrive. . . .

I love fairy tale retellings, and this is one I don't think I've seen done before. McGuire shows a skillful hand at stitching together all of the elements in the old tale to fashion a full, vibrant novel. I was never quite sold on the romance, but the romantic portion of the plot is so slight that enjoyment of the book doesn't hinge on that aspect. All in all, a promising debut!

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is the realization of the fantasy world that the main character in Fangirl writes about.

It's Simon Snow's last year at Watford, the school of Magick that is more of a home to him than any of the orphanages and foster homes where he grew up. Nothing is going according to plan, though -- the Insidious Humdrum is causing havoc all over Britain, but the Mage is strangely absent and preoccupied. Simon has had a fight with his girlfriend, and Baz, Simon's evil vampire roommate, hasn't even shown up for the start of term. Simon's need to know what Baz is up to pretty much amounts to a fixation -- who knew he could be even more irritating in absence than when present? And of course, what Simon should really be worrying about is the Insidious Humdrum, who can suck a region dry of magic, and who recently appeared in the guise of Simon himself as a young boy. Why is the Humdrum wearing Simon's face, and does the Mage have any plans to stop the Humdrum from stealing magic?

If you've read Fangirl, you know that in that universe the Simon Snow series is an eight-book fantasy epic much like Harry Potter, and Carry On, Simon is the massive slash fanfic written by Cath, the main character in Fangirl -- an alternate ending to the series. Of course, in our world, none of that exists, except now we have Carry On, which is probably not exactly what Cath would write, but closer to Cath's version of events than to Gemma T. Doyle's. (If you haven't read Fangirl, you're probably pretty confused by now. Sorry.) Basically, assume there have already been seven books about the adventures of Simon Snow, his best friend Penelope, his girlfriend Agatha, and his nemesis/roommate Baz. Except, of course, there haven't, so Rowell has to include some backstory that readers of the nonexistent series would already know about, which she does skillfully.

I went into this book with trepidation: due to the factors I attempted to explain in the preceding paragraph, the concept of Carry On sounded to me like Rowell was basically writing her own fanfiction. Plus, everything she's published until now has been pretty well grounded in reality (magical phone lines to the past notwithstanding). I shouldn't have worried. If anyone can pull off this crazy concept, it's Rainbow Rowell. Reading this book felt a little bit like reading Deathly Hallows again for the first time -- not because of any similarities in plot, but because she really captured the feeling of a long-awaited final book, even though the earlier books don't technically exist. Carry On lovingly (and obliquely) pokes at some of the weaknesses of Harry Potter without ever becoming too harshly critical.

And of course, Carry On is a fantastic story in its own right, with a carefully developed system of magic, elaborately imagined setting, and a plot that builds to a dramatic and surprising conclusion. I found the whole thing surprisingly gripping.

Can you read this book without having read Fangirl? Probably, but I wouldn't recommend it. Though the plot is entirely independent of Fangirl, the characters and relationships are introduced there in a way that primes the reader for greater enjoyment of Carry On. But if you're a fan of Fangirl and have been feeling some trepidation about Carry On, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock is young adult realistic fiction with a heroine who is learning to be strong.

Last year, the mean girls picked on Celia, but this year she has decided to be Dark. Celia the Dark doesn't let anyone push her around, and she's determined to come up with a brilliant, poetic plan for revenge on the girls who bullied her. Of course, dealing with bullying and social ostracism isn't as simple as all that, and when you throw in complications like parents going through a separation that might end in divorce, and a new friend who is just coming out of the closet -- well, it all adds up to quite a year for Celia. Will her Dark outlook see her through?

Going in, I expected this book to dish out the teenage angst, and it does -- but what I didn't expect was that it would also be sweet and sometimes funny. Finneyfrock creates great, pitch-perfect teenage characters, but she's also able to pull out a bit of the ridiculous nature of high school (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off, for comparison). Enjoyable all the way through; this is an author I'll be sure to watch!

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tides by Betsy Cornwell

Tides by Betsy Cornwell is a modern selkie story.

Noah has been looking forward to this summer ever since he got the news that he'd won the internship he wanted. Now he and his younger sister Lo are staying with their grandmother in her island home while Noah works at a marine research facility. He's initially disappointed when he's assigned the task of organizing a room full of files, but surely his boss will soon see his potential and give him more challenging work. And then he meets Mara, a lovely and mysterious girl who seems hesitant to let Noah get close to her. She has a secret -- and she isn't the only one. Little does Noah know, but secrets run as deep as the ocean in his grandmother's island community, and some of them are dark and dangerous, as well.

I found this a complex story that handles difficult issues without dishing out pat solutions. The lore is interesting, though I found the plot and pacing just average. Still, worth reading if this type of book appeals to you!

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A School for Brides by Patrice Kindl

A School for Brides by Patrice Kindl is a witty Regency story set at a finishing school.

The young ladies of the Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy have a problem: though they are enrolled at a finishing school which should provide them with the necessary polish for marriage, matrimonial prospects are few and far between in the sleepy little town where the school is located. How will they ever find husbands when they are stuck in an out-of-the-way corner of Yorkshire? Fortunately, where there is a will, there is a way -- and will is something that none of these young ladies lacks!

Here's a story just as much fun as Keeping the Castle, Kindl's last foray into the Regency genre. In fact, some of the characters from that book make cameo appearances in this one, but readers unfamiliar with Kindl's earlier work do not particularly need to worry about catching up, as this title stands alone admirably. The characters are fun, the shenanigans amusing, the romances sweet, and the general tone as light as a good sponge cake. Fans of historical romance are sure to enjoy this one.

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Pountry Farmer by Kelly Jones

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones is a delightful tale of magic and poultry.

Sophie's not super excited about moving to the farm her father inherited from a great-uncle, but if she's going to live in the country, at least she can have some chickens, right? And then the chickens start showing up on their own, identified by the neighbors as birds that used to belong to Great-Uncle Jim. But these chickens have some . . . interesting . . . abilities. And it turns out that Sophie is not the only one who wants these chickens. Where are the chickens coming from -- and who is trying to take them away?

This book, written in epistolary style, is just as fun and quirky as you might expect from the title. I, too, had chickens when I was Sophie's age (though mine were just ordinary ones) so that might have influenced me somewhat in favor of this book, but I believe country folks and city dwellers alike will find this story charming.

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley is juvenile fiction set during World War II, and possibly one of the best children's books I've read all year.

Ten-year-old Ada has never left her family's London apartment. Her mother is ashamed of Ada's club foot and refuses to let her appear in public. When Ada's little brother Jamie comes home from school with the news that children in London are being evacuated to the countryside because of the danger of bombings, Ada hatches a daring plan: she knows her mother would not give her permission to go, but what if she were to go anyway? She sneaks out with Jamie on the morning the children are to leave, and just like that, enters what might as well be another world. In the country, Jamie and Ada are placed with Susan, a spinster who did not intend to take in children. Slowly, Ada and Jamie learn to trust Susan, and Susan learns to care for, and even love, the children. But what will happen when the war ends and Ada and Jamie must return to London?

This book has a multitude of strengths (plot, pacing, setting to name a few) but the characters are what make it really stand out. Each of the three main characters has a distinct and beautifully rendered emotional journey as the story progresses, and I was completely wrapped up in their lives while reading. I would not be surprised to see it garner some accolades when awards are handed out this winter!

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