Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy is the conclusion of a rollicking adventure series.

The members of the League of Princes are in a bad situation: they are accused of the murder of Briar Rose. Now, the dashing princes must go to great lengths to clear their names, and to undermine yet another nefarious plot by a villain bent on world domination. It's their greatest challenge yet -- can they overcome it? Also, pirates.

This is the third book in a trilogy, so of course it's a bad place to start if you are unfamiliar with the series. However, for series fans, this action-packed laugh-fest delivers a satisfying conclusion. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Bronson Pinchot. He does exaggerated and distinctive voices for each character, which would not work for more serious literature, but suits this sort of novel well. It's a fun book and a fun series, and I'll be interested to see what the author does next, now that the League of Princes have attained their happily ever after.

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

Friday, October 2, 2015

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty is a spooky novel set in a grand location.

Years ago, Serafina's father helped build the Biltmore mansion. The house has many secrets -- and Serafina is one of them. She sleeps most of the day and prowls the house at night, catching rats and observing the midnight life of the house. She does not, however, venture into the woods surrounding the estate, because her father has often warned her of the many dangers that lurk there. But when danger comes to Biltmore, Serafina may be the only one who can stop it -- if she is brave and daring and willing to move beyond the confines of her hidden life.

This book has fascinating notes of mystery and suspense. It's definitely on the creepy side, though it has its moments of sweetness as well. The atmosphere and setting are the best parts of the book -- while the plot is also fairly good, I thought the characterization faltered in spots. But it's still an enjoyable read, one that will appeal to kids who enjoy books like The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier and Doll Bones by Holly Black.

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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon

The Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon is a folksy tale of two youngsters on a runaway road trip.

When Ivy's mother up and runs away with a traveling preacher named Hallelujah Dave from the Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle, Florida, Ivy doesn't know what to make of it. Why would her mother leave? Why does her father not try harder to get her to come back? In the midst of all her worry, an unexpected friendship springs up between Ivy and science nerd Paul, who is mourning the death of the space shuttle program. The two hatch up a scheme to go to Florida and find Ivy's mother (and maybe pay a visit to Kennedy Space Center as well). Of course, things don't go exactly as planned. . . .

I liked this book well enough, but did not love it. I know it's intended as contemporary (aside from the definite, anchoring detail about the end of the space shuttle program, there were cell phones and such), but I kept having to remind myself that this was not historical fiction set in the sixties or seventies. I can't exactly put my finger on why this was, but it puzzled and annoyed me throughout the book. Maybe it's just me? I also found Ivy very similar to other feisty young girls in this sort of book; she doesn't stand out as a distinct character in my mind. Again, I'm jaded when it comes to books with a folksy southern tone like this one has, so I can see others enjoying this book more than I did -- in the end, I think it's just not my cup of tea.

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

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan is the first book in a new series rooted in Norse mythology.  This book will be released on October 6th, 2015.

Magnus Chase has been on his own since his mom died, living on the streets of Boston.  When his homeless buddies tell him that his uncle is looking for him, Magnus knows he's in trouble.  Soon, he finds himself in an action-packed chase-and-fight sequence that results in his death.  Now, usually it's not a good thing when a book's hero dies less than 50 pages into the story -- but Magnus has previously unsuspected ties to Norse mythology, so when he dies heroically, a Valkyrie whisks him away to Valhalla, where he joins the hordes of heroes awaiting Ragnarok.  There's just one problem: Magnus has some unfinished business on Earth.  Could it be that he's one hero that Valhalla just can't hold?

To me, this book feels like a return to Riordan's strengths.  While I enjoyed the Heroes of Olympus series, it did have some weaknesses -- particularly when it came to the sheer number of point-of-view characters.  This book zeros back in on a single first-person perspective (a friend who also read the book refers to Magnus as "an older, rougher Percy Jackson," and I think that sums him up pretty well, though there's still nothing content-wise to discomfit upper-elementary and middle-school readers).  Riordan also brings back the witty chapter titles that will have some readers (or at least this one) snorting with laughter at times.  The pace is a breakneck as ever, with the usual assortment of monsters and villains, just from further north this time.  Riordan works his usual magic with the mythology, seamlessly blending it into the modern world with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor to hold everything together.  There are also a few sly references to Riordan's earlier works, not to mention a cameo appearance by a certain other Chase -- readers who haven't encountered those earlier books won't feel lost, but Riordan's fans will love those little inside jokes.  Bottom line: if you like Riordan's style, you'll definitely like this book -- and if you've never picked up the others, you can start here without worrying about what you've missed in earlier books. 

The only problem with reading an advance copy: it makes my wait for Book 2 that much longer!  Don't you feel sorry for me? . . . Nah, I didn't think so!

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson is the first book in a new series by a talented author.

When Leah Westfall finds herself alone in the world and subject to the devious machinations of a greedy uncle, she does what thousands of others are doing: she goes west. Gold has been discovered in California, and the gold fever has struck the general public hard. Disguising herself as a boy, "Lee" makes her way up the Mississippi to Independence and finds a wagon train to join. There will be plenty of hardships over the next months, and not all of Lee's companions will make it to their destination. For Lee the stakes are high, because she's hiding not one, but two secrets: not only is she a girl dressed as a boy, but she also has the magical ability to sense gold hidden in the ground. And the only person who knows is her uncle -- the man who will stop at nothing to bring Lee back under his control.

This is a highly enjoyable story, rich in historical detail and character development. Carson doesn't pull her punches: readers will get quite attached to some characters who won't make it to the end of the book. Despite (or because of?) that, this is a great read, especially for those who have an interest in historical fiction set in this period. People I'd recommend it to: fans of this author, people who enjoyed Patricia C. Wrede's Frontier Magic trilogy, and everyone with a nostalgic fondness for Oregon Trail.

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

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead is an excellent story of middle-school friendship.

Bridget, Tabitha, and Emily have been best friends forever, but middle school will try their friendship in new ways. Bridge has made a new friend, Sherm. She doesn't think she's in love with him, but is it possible to fall in friendship just as powerfully as you fall in love? Tab has discovered feminism, thanks to an inspirational teacher, but she's about to be reminded that she still doesn't know everything. And Em has developed a figure that is getting attention from boys -- including a certain boy, who wants her to send him a certain kind of photo. Meanwhile, in another story line, an unnamed high school girl deals with betrayal and disillusionment in her own friendships.

This book is a really excellent middle-school book, which is actually comparatively rare. The characters act in ways consistent with actual middle-schoolers, and deal with issues that face middle-schoolers, and while the issues are addressed frankly, they never venture out of the middle-school realm. And of course, since it's Rebecca Stead, the writing is generally excellent and the characters are distinct and develop over the course of the story. Recommended both to the target audience and to anyone who enjoys well-written juvenile fiction.

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

Friday, August 21, 2015

Massive Mini-Review Catch-Up

I'm so far behind, you guys.  It's ridiculous.  So, while I still have a short stack of really excellent books that will get full review treatment, these books (ranging from okay to very good) get briefer consideration.  Better than nothing, right?

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson features a trio of young misfits on an adventure in deep space. I liked the story well enough, but the artwork is what really sells this book. Recommended for graphic novel fans. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm describes Sunny's adventures at her grandfather's retirement complex while she comes to terms with some of the serious things that have happened in her family over the past year. This gently realistic story will appeal to readers who enjoy Raina Telgemeier's books. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb is the story of Flor and the tiny island where she lives. When Flor's best friend is sent away to school on the mainland, Flor discovers various secrets about her friend, her family, her island, and herself. This is a sweet and well-written story, and I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy realistic juvenile fiction focusing on friendship and family issues, as well as anyone who likes to keep an eye on possible award contenders, as I imagine this book will crop up in discussions of noteworthy titles this fall. (Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus is a mystery set on a remote lake shore. Quirky characters abound as 17-year-old Francie (who isn't a detective, but played one on TV once) tries to discover if someone really is bumping off members of her great-aunts' neighborhood. This fun story will appeal to readers who enjoy (or are nostalgic for) Nancy Drew and her ilk. (Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

 Forget-Me-Not Summer by Leila Howland is the story of three California sisters spending part of their summer vacation on Cape Cod. For me, this book didn't quite measure up to other tales of summer and sisterhood (the most obvious comparison is The Penderwicks, and nothing's going to measure up to that, I'm afraid). I found the characters annoying -- Marigold was too snotty, Zinnia was too needy, and Lily was too bratty for any of them to engage my sympathies. That's not to say that this book didn't have its pleasant moments, and I think kids who can't get enough of this sort of gentle, realistic family story will gobble it up -- but it just wasn't the book for me. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen is a suspenseful story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall. Gerta's father and one of her brothers were on the western side of Berlin the night the wall went up, and now she, her mother, and her other brother are trapped in a restrictive regime where any neighbor or co-worker might be reporting to the authorities. Gerta would do anything to be reunited with her father, but if she and her family are caught trying to escape, it could cost them their lives. I've read several of this author's fantasy books, and was curious how she would do in a different genre. The results are excellent: this is a fascinating, gripping read that will definitely appeal to fans of historical fiction as well as fans of Nielsen's earlier works. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Dumplin' by Julie Murphy is a tale of beauty pageants and body image, among other things. Willowdean has always been okay with her plus-size figure, but a secret romance with a co-worker has shaken her self-confidence. She doesn't want her size to hold her back from living her life, so she decides to make a statement by entering the local beatuty pageant -- the one that her mother won as a teen, and has been involved in organizing pretty much ever since. What Willowdean doesn't expect is that other nontraditional pageant contestants will rally around her. She also doesn't expect the pageant to come between her and her long-time best friend. Though it contains more strong language than I generally appreciate, this is a great YA read with complex characters, plenty of humor, and a solid plot -- recommended. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Third Grade Angels by Jerry Spinelli is a prequel to Fourth Grade Rats. In this book, Suds tries to be the best student in the class and win his teacher's approval, but he finds that being good is harder than he expected. I'm sure this book will be enjoyed by its target audience, though there's not much depth here for the adult reader. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore is a juvenile historical novel. Hazel is the daughter of the town's graveyard caretakers, and a bit of a quirky outsider. She's convinced that there are Communist spies somewhere in their small town -- maybe right under her nose! But when she befriends Samuel, a newcomer who may be the only kid in town even odder than Hazel, she learns that compassion and friendship may be more important than being right about everything. I enjoyed this read, though I'm not sure how well some parts of the story will work for young readers with no prior knowledge of the McCarthy era. For kids, this may be one of those books best suited to a classroom setting. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Winterling by Sarah Prineas is the first book in a juvenile fantasy trilogy. Jennifer, who has always felt as if she doesn't fit in, is drawn through a portal to the land of Faerie, where her parents disappeared years ago, and where an evil queen rules in place of the true Lady of the realm. Something about this book just didn't click, for me -- I think the characterization could be stronger. I wanted to like it, but I probably won't continue with this series. (Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge is an imaginative retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood." Rachelle stepped off the path, and now she must pay the price. Her aunt had been training her to be a woodwife, but now Rachelle is Bloodbound, one of the king's trained killers, doomed to eventually join the heartless Forestborn. But until then, she works as hard as she can to fend off the Destroyer. That mission is thrown off track, however, when the king assigns her to be a bodyguard to one of his sons. I really liked Cruel Beauty, Hodge's first book, but I didn't like this one quite as much. Part of it could be that I've never loved Red Riding Hood, part of it could be that there was a lot of religious weirdness in this story that just didn't work for me, and part of it could be that I didn't find the love triangle very convincing or appealing. That makes it sound like I really hated this book, and I didn't -- I think that other readers might enjoy it more than I did, but I still read the whole thing in a couple of days. It's not a favorite, but I'll still be keeping an eye out for other fairy tale retellings by this author.  (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Paperboy by Vince Vawter is the story of a shy, stuttering boy who makes new friends -- and enemies -- when he takes over a friend's paper route for a month during one hot Memphis summer. I listened to the audiobook, which was well done, though this book is not the fast-moving sort that makes for an exciting listen. Still, it kept me engaged with its excellent atmosphere and depth of characterization. I can see why the Newbery committee deemed it worthy of an honor. (Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other) by Geoff Rodkey is a funny tale of sibling rivalry and an escalating practical joke war. I listened to the audiobook and the narration was well done by a team of voice actors, which made it easy to differentiate between characters. I can see this as a good choice for family listening, on a long car trip, for example. (Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

 To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han is a fun romance that starts out with an embarrassing mishap. When Lara Jean wrote those letters to her former crushes, she never intended for them to be read by anyone but herself. When the letters are somehow mailed out, chaos ensues. This is a nice, light, and fluffy YA romance, but the best part of the book is the relationship between the three sisters. (Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston is a compelling fantasy in a desert setting.

Lo-Melkhiin went hunting in the desert one day, and he came back changed. The powerful young ruler now has something cold and calculating at his heart, and though he is still fair, he is no longer beloved. How could he be, when he has killed hundreds of brides and seems to have an insatiable appetite for more? When he comes to the tents of this book's nameless heroine, she bravely steps forward to save her beloved, beautiful sister. She expects to die like all the others, but she finds that she can survive one day at a time -- thanks, perhaps, to her words and stories, which seem to have a mysterious power that they never had before. Can she use them save Lo-Melkhiin and his people from a powerful force of evil?

I loved the sense of mystery and the wealth of authentic detail in this book. I have not run across many retellings of The Thousand and One Nights, and this one is particularly skillfully written. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

(Reviewed from an e-galley, courtesy of the publisher.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai is a lush story of family and heritage.

Mai has her summer all planned out: hanging out at Laguna Beach with her friends, flirting with that cute boy she's been eying. Then her parents inform her that she is going to spend the summer traveling to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is seeking closure in regards to her husband, Mai's grandfather, who disappeared during the war. This will also give Mai a chance to get in touch with her own cultural heritage, her parents add. Mai feels that she is in touch with her heritage just fine, and has no need to spend a summer far from California to explore it. Couldn't one of her parents accompany her grandmother? But her mother, a lawyer, has a busy summer slated at work, and her father, a doctor, will travel with them to Vietnam, but will then continue to more remote villages to perform surgeries and other procedures for people who could otherwise never afford them. And so it is that Mai finds herself in Vietnam, having a far different summer than the one she had planned, and yes, getting in touch with her roots. But finding out the truth about what happened to her grandfather all those years ago will take more work than Mai could have imagined.

Thanhha Lai's masterful use of language has already been established for those who have read her earlier verse novel Inside Out and Back Again. I was surprised to see that Listen, Slowly is prose, not verse, but not surprised that it exhibits the same level of linguistic virtuosity. Lai's multifaceted characters come to life against the rich backdrop of modern Vietnam. With touches of pathos and splashes of humor, this book tells the story of a journey of discovery for Mai, as well as for her grandmother. Mai's character development is the real heart of the story as she learns to truly appreciate her heritage. Highly recommended.

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Out from Boneville by Jeff Smith

Out from Boneville by Jeff Smith is the first installment of Bone, a classic graphic novel series.

When cousins Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone are driven out of Boneville by an irate populace (Phoney's been up to his usual tricks again), they find themselves lost in an unmapped desert. Separated by a storm, the three eventually find themselves in a strange new land, replete with its own dangers and rewards. But will the three cousins ever be reunited?

I've been reading a fair number of graphic novels lately, but I don't think I will ever love them the way I do traditional books. I can see the distinguished points in this book -- it has humor, good characters, strong plot, nice artwork -- but it didn't grip me the way it has obviously gripped so many others. Obviously, this is a reader problem, not a book problem, so if you like graphic novels and have not yet explored this series, you probably ought to look in to that.

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