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.)

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell is an almost fairy tale retelling -- a thought-provoking work of fantasy in an historical setting.

A broken castle lies surrounded by a wall of fierce thorns. Nobody goes near it, nobody speaks of it. Every item in every room of the castle has been sundered, ripped it two by some unimaginable force. And within the castle lies a girl who is sleeping.

No. Within the castle lies the body of a girl who is dead.

Sand doesn't know how he came to be in the castle. He ran away from home, fell asleep by a roadside shrine, and woke up in the castle's kitchen fireplace. Nor does he know how to get out -- the thorns are just as fierce when approached from within. So, he starts setting things to rights, as much as he can. He patches up furniture, twists torn bedding into a rope for the well, collects scraps of metal near the smith's forge. He even ventures down into the castle crypt, where he straightens the body of a girl his own age, thrown onto the floor like a rag doll during the sundering (though fortunately still in one piece). Nothing grows in the castle grounds, but the food that was in the castle is well-preserved, simply dried out. Sand starts to get to the point where he can manage, though he doesn't relish the idea of spending his life in the castle. But then everything changes again: Perrote, the girl from the crypt, wakes up. She's neither a ghost or a zombie, but simply a girl Sand's age, who was dead for a while but has come back to life. Working together, Sand and Perrote mend many things in the castle, and forge the beginnings of a friendship as well -- but can they figure out how to break the curse and remove the thorns that imprison them?

As you can see, this is almost a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but not quite. And, just so you know, there is no kissing in this middle-grade novel, so that's not the solution to the mystery! Over the course of the narrative, Perrote's back-story is revealed, and readers get a slowly dawning sense of why she is alive again and why Sand is the one sent there to be with her. This makes for leisurely pacing -- this isn't the sort of book that drives you on to the conclusion. The setting and the characters make up for any shortcomings in plot and pacing, though. I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it.

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige is an Oz sequel with a bit of a twist.

Amy Gumm is just an average poor girl from Kansas. She lives in a trailer park, shops at the thrift store, and is bullied by the mean girl in her class. Her mom is an addict, hardly functional, so Amy has been acting as head of the household since she was 13. When a tornado sweeps through town and deposits Amy in Oz, there's a large part of her that doesn't want to look back -- no "there's no place like home" for her. But Oz isn't the cheery land of movie and storybook that Amy expects: towns have been reduced to vacant ruins, dangers are everywhere, and the few people Amy does meet are cryptic and unfriendly. The source of all of this misery is, of course, Dorothy Gale, the other girl from Kansas. Apparently, home wasn't all it was cracked up to be for Dorothy, either, because she has returned to Oz and now rules beside Ozma (who she's somehow reduced to a mere puppet-like figure) as a princess, demanding every good thing for herself (including the land's magic) and withholding it from everyone else. The Cowardly Lion leads an army of beasts to enforce her wishes, and the Tin Woodsman has a troupe of metal soldiers who protect her. Meanwhile, the Scarecrow bends his powerful brain to scientific experimentation, creating mutants and fiendish devices for Dorothy as she relishes her life of luxury. Obviously, something has to be done, but is Amy the one to do it? She may be from the same place as Dorothy, but she's equipped with neither magic nor fighting skills -- at least, not until she falls into the hands of the Order of the Wicked, a group of witches and fighters dedicated to one goal: Dorothy must die.
Now, I have to admit: I'm no Oz aficionado. I neither reverence the original nor adore the Wicked version (though, to be fair, I haven't seen the musical yet, so I suppose that could change). In terms of fantasy lands, give me Wonderland, give me the Enchanted Forest, give me Neverland, give me (please O please give me) Narnia, but Oz? Meh. I couldn't tell you the difference between a Quadling and a Gillikin if one came up and poked me in the nose. So I'm not fussed about any authorial depredations on Oz and its inhabitants, nor am I bothered by Dorothy coming back and being evil. What does bother me about this book, you may ask? Well, I'll tell you: the GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER at the end of the book. That bothers me. Sure, there were times when I found the characterization a little flat, and the pacing, though generally good, lagged once or twice. But all of that pales in comparison with the GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER. I did find the premise of a dystopian Oz interesting, and I think this book will appeal to teens (there's a hot guy or two and some fighting), but did I mention that it ends in a GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER? Because anyone like me, going into the book not realizing it was the beginning of a series, might be a bit put out at that. But if you're fascinated by the concept and not bothered by books that end in a GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER, you might want to give this a try.

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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare is a children's classic and Newbery medal winner set at the time of Christ's early ministry.

Daniel has nothing but hatred for the Romans. They occupy his native land, with soldiers everywhere, and Daniel feels that they are to blame for his parents' death. Though he is only 15, Daniel considers himself a zealot, has taken a vow to avenge his parents, and has run away from his apprenticeship to a cruel blacksmith. He now makes his home in the mountain caves with a band of thieves led by Rosh, a hard but charismatic man who promises to lead the fight against the Roman oppressors. When word comes to Daniel that his grandmother is dying, he returns to the village where he grew up. He finds his grandmother at death's door, and his sister Leah, who is mentally ill and refuses to leave the house, in a pitiable state. Daniel longs to return to the mountain, but when his grandmother dies, he is the only person who can care for Leah. The old smith has died, and the new smith Simon, a friend of Daniel's, has left his forge to follow a new teacher named Jesus whose words are inspiring many in the area. Daniel occasionally goes to hear this Jesus but finds his teachings confusing. Daniel is determined to continue working for Rosh from his position in the village, and even recruits Joel, a friend from the nearby city of Capernaum. Daniel also gathers together a group of village boys who feel the same way he does about the Romans. But when one of Rosh's plans results in Joel being captured and Rosh does nothing to help, Daniel's faith in his leader is shaken. And when Daniel's sister is taken ill with a fever, there is only one person Daniel can turn to -- but will Jesus demand that Daniel give up the one thing he's always clung to: his hatred of the Romans?

I found the pacing and characterization in this book very good, though it is a product of its time and contains a few historical inaccuracies. This book will be best appreciated by readers who approach it from a Christian worldview, as it dovetails neatly with Biblical accounts of Jesus' teachings in Galilee during the early part of his ministry. This book is not without bias, and has been criticized for portraying some aspects of Judaism harshly, so that's something some readers may want to keep in mind. However, I actually found this much less problematic than the last Speare book I read (The Sign of the Beaver). As inspirational historical fiction, this book works pretty well -- and since I believe the author originally wrote it for her Sunday School class, that makes perfect sense. I doubt that it will appeal to a broader audience, though.

The audio version was acceptable, but not phenomenal. Having a female narrator (Mary Woods) is an unusual choice for a book with a male main character, and though she did an adequate job, I was never particularly impressed.

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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth from the perspective of Psyche's oldest sister.

Istra is the most beautiful child you can possibly imagine -- sweet and wholesome as a summer's day. You would think that her older half-sister Orual would hate her, but quite the opposite is true. Since Istra's mother died in childbirth and their father the king cares little for his female offspring, Orual is free to mother and care for Istra. Along with their tutor, a Greek slave known as the Fox, they wander the hillsides surrounding the city, happy and free. But all is not well in the kingdom: there are rumors of war with surrounding nations, wild animals ravaging the countryside, and now a plague in the city. The priest of the goddess Ungit casts the lots, and they fall to the king's household. Istra must be sacrificed, left on the holy mountain for the Shadowbeast. Orual is devastated to the point of sickness herself. When she is able to leave her bed, she resolves to go to the mountain and care for her sister's remains. What she finds there, however, is Istra alive and healthy. Istra has been living in a small valley high in the hills, but she claims that it is a castle, though Orual sees only rocks and bushes. Istra claims that she dwells in her husband's house -- the house of the god of the mountain. He comes to her at night, and she is forbidden to see his face. Orual tries to persuade Istra to come home, or to go into hiding with her, but Istra will not leave her mysterious lover. Orual eventually convinces Istra to at least light a lamp and see what sort of creature she has married -- surely, Orual thinks, either some monstrous beast or else a vagabond living wild in the hills, who has preyed on Istra's mind, weakened from the trauma of being sacrificed. Orual is sure that, once Istra sees her bridegroom, she will return to her sister's care. She waits at a distance, watching in the night for Istra's light to appear . . .

This is the book I like to recommend to people who think they know C.S. Lewis. It's much more nuanced and subtle than the Narnia stories (though, don't get me wrong, I am an avid fan of those as well), and I would contest that this book is his strongest literary work, and Orual his best female character by far. She's both a nurturer and a warrior, both strong and flawed. She's clever and bitter and not afraid to speak her mind. If you haven't read this book, either because you haven't heard of it, or because you wrote off C.S. Lewis for one reason or another, I urge you to go find this book and read it. Highly recommended.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Don't Call Me Baby by Gwendolyn Heasley

Don't Call Me Baby by Gwendolyn Heasley is the story of a teen struggling to step out of the spotlight her blogging mother constantly shines on her.

Imogene has been known online as Babylicious since before she was born. Her mother started a mommy blog as soon as she found out she was expecting, and she's chronicled Imogene's life ever since, from potty training to bed-wetting to Imogene's first period. But now Imogene is starting ninth grade, and she longs for privacy. She doesn't feel that she can confront her mother about the invasive aspects of the blog, especially since it's one of their household's primary sources of revenue, but when a school assignment leads to Imogene starting a blog of her own, she hatches a plan to serve her mother a little of her own medicine.

This is a quick read and poses some interesting ideas about the prevalence of the Internet in people's daily lives, but I can't really recommend it. The book's problems start with the cover and title, neither of which serves the actual book well. And then there's the content: clunky dialogue, unrealistic and inconsistent characterization, and a tone and plot better suited to a much younger audience -- more tween than teen. Imogene and her friends are frustratingly immature, "Mommylicious" is a caricature of a mommy blogger, and secondary characters are likewise flat. The ending wraps things up a little too neatly, as well. While I read through it to see how things would turn out for Imogene, I feel it's not successful as a YA novel.

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