Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ask Again Later by Liz Czukas

Ask Again Later by Liz Czukas is a fun and fluffy YA book.

Heart has plans for a drama-free prom: she's going with a group of friends, and they've dubbed it the "No Drama Prom-a." Then Ryan from French class asks her to go "just as a friend," and her older brother asks her to go with Troy, one of his friends who has just gotten dumped. Heart's not romantically interested in either of the two guys, but there are good reasons to go with either of them, and she knows her friends won't mind if she backs out on their group. But which should she choose? Her best friend's Magic Eight Ball is no help. Heart decides to settle it by flipping a coin. That coin toss will result in her actually experiencing the prom from both standpoints simultaneously.

This book is plenty of fun, with lots of humor and snark. Heart doesn't take the whole prom thing too seriously, and there's a romance that readers will see coming but still cheer for as the story plays out. I wasn't sure how the "two proms at one time" thing would work, but I think it came together fairly well (there was some rapid-fire switching back and forth near the end of the book that kind of lost me), and I liked the way that certain key things happened in both timelines, but in slightly different ways. If you like this sort of light reading, you should give this book a try.

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Last Full Measure by Ann Rinaldi

The Last Full Measure by Ann Rinaldi is a young adult novel about life in the town of Gettysburg during the Civil War.

Fourteen-year-old Tacy's father is an army doctor, and two of her three older brothers are soldiers in the Union Army. Her other brother, David, has an injured foot that prevents him from joining the army, so their father has tasked him with caring for his mother and sister at their home in Gettysburg. Tacy used to have a good relationship with her brother, but the war has changed that: he's now domineering and repressive, while she has grown more headstrong and sassy. But with soldiers on both sides of the conflict arriving in town, there are many dangers facing a young woman of Tacy's age -- not to mention the dangers that her father and brothers face on the battlefield every day. Will Tacy and her family make it through the battle unscathed?

I'm usually a fan of Rinaldi's writing, but this is not one of her stronger books. Part of the problem is that Tacy doesn't have much agency, nor does she gain any over the course of the story. This is historically accurate, but potentially frustrating for readers who might be expecting one of Rinaldi's typical strong heroines. Tacy does have a certain strength of will, but the story is less about her and more about day to day life in Gettysburg during the battle. Moreover, Tacy's voice is prosaic, even when describing events where she is experiencing heightened emotion. This lends a certain level of detachment to the story; I never felt like I really connected with Tacy. I found myself easily pulled out of the story, therefore, when I encountered small, irksome details, like David saying "I've given her a lot of crap lately," a distinctly modern turn of phrase. I also don't feel that the title of the book is a good fit, especially considering that there are other Civil War books out there with the same or similar titles (notably Jeff Shaara's The Last Full Measure). A little more originality would help reduce confusion. On the other hand, Rinaldi's careful research is evident, both in the book itself and in the Author's Note at the end. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as an introduction to Rinaldi's writing, her fans are likely to enjoy the book, as well as those who are particularly interested in the Battle of Gettysburg.

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

Monday, April 7, 2014

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell is a fantasy set in medival Europe.

Matilda may be a princess, but she feels anything but in control of her life. Since she is lame in one foot, her days are spent doing scribe's work related to the running of her small country, which she will rule when she comes of age. Enjoying a few days of freedom while her mother is away on a visit, Tilda and her maidservant Judith travel to a neighboring knight's home to help set his accounts in order, and to visit her friend Parzifal who is a squire there. While there, Tilda is captured by her evil Cousin Ivo, who has designs on her land and plans to step into her place as ruler. Tilda, who dreams of retiring to a quiet convent where she could spend her days in a scriptorium writing her own book, tells Ivo he can have her country, though of course he doesn't believe her. That night, Parz and Judith rescue Tilda, and the three go on the run. Parz and Judith plan to become dragon slayers, and Tilda will finally get to write her own book, a handbook for dragon slayers. There's a little problem, of course: none of them really know anything about dragons or dragon-slaying. And is running away from her responsibilities truly the solution to Tilda's problems?

This story has plenty of action, and a plot that is fairly unpredictable -- I thought I knew where the story was going, and then it would shift and surprise me, which was refreshing (though occasionally disorienting). Tilda and her friends experience a lot of character development as they learn about what it will take to pursue their ambitions. Minor characters are likewise rendered in shades of gray, rarely all good or all bad (though there is one bad guy who is pretty much evil all the way through). Though the setting is medieval, the language is modern, with no thees or thous in sight. I thought this was a fun read with a surprising amount of depth, and I will recommend it to kids and adults who enjoy this sort of fantasy story.

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

Friday, April 4, 2014

House of Ivy and Sorrow by Natalie Whipple

House of Ivy & Sorrow by Natalie Whipple is a YA paranormal story.

They say a witch lives in the old house under the bridge. They're right. Josephine Hemlock and her grandmother are the last in a long line of powerful witches, but they have equally powerful enemies. Jo's mother died of a mysterious curse, and when Jo's father arrives in town unexpectedly, the same dark forces are trailing along behind him. Jo and her grandmother must figure out who their enemies are and how the curse works, before it destroys everything they love.

I thought this book was good, but I'm finding it not particularly memorable. Writing this review now, just a few days after reading, the details have gone fuzzy in my head. (Or is that the cold medicine speaking?) From the cover and title, I expected a story with a much darker tone, more mysterious and fantastical, whereas the tone in this book is generally upbeat with touches of humor and sarcasm even in the direst of situations. Not that I'm lamenting a dearth of angst, mind you, but it's not exactly what I was expecting! All in all, a pleasant enough story, but not one I'll particularly want to revisit.

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Spine Poetry

In honor of National Poetry Month, here are two book spine poems for your enjoyment. 

First, a funny one:

 Dorothy must die!
The doom machine
And another thing...
Pure dead magic.

Then, one with a more wistful tone:
 Geektastic Fangirl,
Not exactly normal:
So you want to be a wizard?
Keep holding on.

Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr

Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr is a story of two girls in the summer between high school and college.

Elizabeth can hardly wait to go to college. She's going all the way across the country to UC-Berkeley, as far as she can get from her controlling mother. When she gets an email with her housing assignment, she immediately contacts her new roommate to coordinate things for their dorm room.

Lauren is less than thrilled to get Elizabeth's email -- she had requested a single. After sharing a room with two younger sisters, she was hoping for a little privacy. But being the oldest of six siblings means she is also able to adjust her expectations, so she writes back to Elizabeth, and a tentative friendship is formed.

Over the course of the summer, the two girls will get to know each other through email, sharing anecdotes about friendships, parents, and boys, and looking forward to what's ahead. But when their communication hits a rocky patch, it starts to look like the girls will not be friends -- or even roommates -- by the time fall rolls around.

Readers who enjoy realistic YA fiction dealing with these sorts of issues will enjoy this book. It's well-written and the characters are relatable, though readers may not always agree with their decisions or opinions.

I listened to the audiobook, and while it was a fairly good production, I thought the two girls sounded too much alike, despite being voiced by different actors. I don't think this was an issue in the writing, and each segment was set apart with the date and location so it was easy to follow when there was a change between characters, but the two did sound fairly similar, so if I paused in the middle of a segment and came back to it later, it sometimes took me a little while to remember who was speaking. But it wasn't enough to really lessen my enjoyment of the story -- just a minor quibble.

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

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Healer's Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson

The Healer's Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson is an inspirational fiction fairy tale retelling set in the middle ages.

Rose, a woodcutter's daughter, is fortunate enough to have been apprenticed to the town healer, meaning that she won't be forced to marry just to secure her station in life. When she catches the eye of the duke's sons, her life starts to get extremely complicated. Wilhelm, the older son, is betrothed to a woman he has never met, and has spent years hunting the sorcerer who threatens her safety -- but he can't deny his feelings for Rose. Rupert, the younger son, romances Rose with flowers and jewelry and sweet words, but his love for wealth means that he will need to either marry a rich woman, or take a lucrative position in the church. Will Rose find happiness with either of the two?

I picked this up because I read a favorable review of one of the author's other inspirational fairy tale retellings, and I decided to start with this one because it was the first. The story, very loosely based on Sleeping Beauty, is pleasant enough, and the author ably incorporates her research on life in the middle ages into the book. There are occasionally places where the characters do or say something that seems a bit modern for their time, but those instances are the exception rather than the rule. My main issue with the book was that I found the plot entirely predictable, and not in a good fairy-tale-retelling way. There's a twist at the end, and I saw it coming from a few chapters in. Even the characters saw it coming, but dismissed it for one reason or another. It seemed entirely too obvious, so I kept reading, thinking that perhaps the author would twist it a different way at the last moment and surprise me . . . but she didn't. Also, the main character has a dog named Wolfie, and for some inexplicable reason, that minor detail irked me all the way through. Wolfie. I just can't. (I do give the author credit for not hurting the dog, though -- I always read books where the main character has a close animal companion with a looming sense of dread!) All in all, I think this is the sort of book that I would have enjoyed as a teen, back when I was less picky and read a lot more inspirational fiction. As it was, I found it just okay, and wouldn't recommend it unless the mashup of inspirational fiction and fairy tale really, really appeals to you.

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge is a dark and complex retelling of Beauty and the Beast/Cupid and Psyche.

Nyx's father made a deal with the prince of demons, and now the time has come for that deal to be kept. Nyx will wed the Gentle Lord and live with him in his castle until she dies, in return for protection for the land and the life of her lovely twin sister. Nyx has known of her fate for most of her life -- and the bitterness and resentment that has built up within her has not been assuaged by the training her father has given her that may allow her to defeat the Gentle Lord and bring his reign to an end. She will take on the role of obedient wife, all the while searching the castle for the four "hermetic hearts" that hold the castle together. Nyx knows her duty -- but what she does not expect is the attraction she feels for her husband, the way the bitterness and malice within her seem to call out to the darkness and sarcasm in him.

Grounded in mythology and legend, this story hearkens back to the Cupid and Psyche myth that is the root of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. Elements of both make this the strongest Beauty and the Beast retelling I have read in quite some time. All of the characters are complex and thought-provoking, none entirely evil or entirely good. While I love a traditional Beauty and the Beast retelling where Beauty's purity of heart enables her to save the day, I found this version fascinating. Readers who enjoy classical mythology, complicated characterization, and new takes on traditional stories should certainly give this book a try.

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

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell is a charming story with an old-fashioned feel.

When the Queen Mary sinks in the middle of the English Channel, a baby is found floating in a cello case. Eccentric scholar Charles Maxim determines to take in the baby and raise her as his own. Baby Sophie thrives on Charles' haphazard parenting style, but when the authorities disagree and plan on putting Sophie in an orphanage, Sophie and Charles must make one desperate attempt to find the person Sophie most wants to meet in the entire world: her mother. The search will take Sophie to the rooftops of Paris, where she will have many strange adventures -- but will she succeed in the one thing that is most important to her?

The writing in this book reminded me a little bit of Noel Streatfeild and a little bit of Roald Dahl, in all the best ways. It's a gentle sort of story, but it's not lacking adventure or humor. It has the quirky, dreamy quality of music and poetry, but it's also grounded in things like skinned knees and sausages cooked over an open fire. This is just the sort of book I would have loved at age eight or nine, and I hope it will find those same enthusiastic readers among today's children.

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

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen

The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen is the final book in the Ascendance Trilogy.

Jaron may be the king of Carthya, but his position is by no means secure. The country is on the brink of war, and Jaron will need every bit of cunning to stay a step ahead of the conflict. As battles rage across the land, Jaron schemes and plots his way through -- but his survival will come at a heavy cost.

I like this series well enough, but I don't quite love it. In this book, the dialogue seems a little stilted in places, and too much of the plot relies on coincidences for me to find it really satisfactory. On the other hand, I do love Jaron's snarky attitude! Readers who enjoyed the first two books in the series will certainly want to see how this one turns out. And I do think the series is a great introduction to high fantasy for kids.

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