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.)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway

Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway is a sweet romance set in the aftermath of a kidnapping.

One of the defining events of Emmy's life was ten years ago, in second grade, when her best friend and next-door neighbor Oliver went to his father's house for the weekend . . . and never came back. After the kidnapping, Emmy's parents became smothering and overprotective, and of course Oliver's mother fell apart. And then, life went on. Emmy always wondered about her friend, where he might be, what might have happened to him, and whether he ever thought of her the way she was thinking of him. And now, Oliver is back. Those ten missing years have turned him into a stranger, but Emmy sometimes sees flashes of her old friend, and she's looking forward to getting to know him again. As the two fumble their way back into a friendship, Emmy can't deny that she's attracted to this grown-up Oliver -- but Oliver is still working through a lot of issues regarding his feelings for both of his parents. Is a romance between Emmy and Oliver really a good idea?

I found this a highly enjoyable read. The characters are great and the plot is interesting without being too farfetched. I'd recommend this to fans of YA realistic fiction.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith

Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith is . . . weird.

Augie's dad runs Fairy Tale Place, a run-down amusement park, which contributes to the surreal atmosphere of Augie's life. Initially, his struggles seem fairly mundane: summer school, bullies, and crushes. But as the summer progresses, things get stranger and stranger: werewolves, ghosts, and UFOs. Or are all of those things just in Augie's head? Is Augie going crazy -- or is there something more sinister at hand?

This one didn't really work for me -- it was a little too surreal and absurd. I like weird stuff, and it seems like this should have been my sort of book, but it just wasn't. Another reader might enjoy it more than I did.

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine

Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine is the sequel to A Tale of Two Castles.

Elodie, the dragon Masteress Meenore, and the ogre Count Jonty Um are on their way to visit Elodie's home on the island of Lahnt, but before they can reach the farmhouse, they learn that a sacred artifact has been stolen -- and if it's not returned within three days, there's likely to be a volcanic eruption, endangering hundreds of people. Finding missing items is Masteress Meenore's specialty, and as It's apprentice, Elodie has already proven that she has some skills in that area, as well -- but it will take all of the wit and cunning Elodie and her companions can muster in order to discover the thief in time to avert disaster.

This is a solid fantasy with a nice interweaving of mystery. I did not realize that it was a sequel when I picked it up, though I actually read A Tale of Two Castles back when it first came out. It's been a while since then, and my memory of that book is hazy at best, but I didn't feel like I was missing much. So, I'm comfortable in saying that you could read this book as a stand-alone without feeling too lost. It's of a similar quality to other books by the same author -- enjoyable, but not phenomenal. Readers who like other books by Levine will probably like this one, as well.

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir is an exciting YA fantasy debut.

When Laia's brother is captured for spying on the government, she does the only thing she can: she runs. Overwhelmed by guilt, she seeks out the Resistance fighters and begs them to rescue her brother. They will only do so if Laia is willing to take on a dangerous and probably fatal mission. She agrees, and is placed as a slave in the household of the Commandant of Blackcliff Academy. Blackcliff is a strict military academy that churns out the country's leaders -- those it doesn't kill along the way. Elias is one of the fortunate (or strong) few to survive Blackcliff, but despite his years of training, he dreams only of escape. He has his route all planned, and unlike other runaways that he's seen caught and executed over the years, he thinks he can probably make it. Unfortunately for him, the Augurs have other plans. Elias will be one of four graduates to compete in the trials to determine the next emperor. Laia and Elias are both fighting for their lives, in one way or another. What will happen when their paths cross?

I really enjoyed this book -- I found it gripping and well-written, and in many ways original, though it didn't manage to avoid all of the conventions of the genre. I like that Laia is not a typical butt-kicking heroine, and that she does get some nice character development over the course of the story. Elias is equally complex and interesting. Many of the secondary characters are intriguing and well-developed; I'm hoping that we get to hear more about Cook in future volumes of the series, as I have a theory about her. And there will be future volumes; though the book does not end in what I'd term a cliffhanger, it's obvious that the author intends to continue the story. There were a few minor things that didn't work well for me. I found the brutality of life at Blackcliff a bit over-the top; it made for some rather flat villains, much less nuanced than the other characters. I also was rooting for Laia and Elias to not end up romantically involved, since both had another potential love interest, and a YA fantasy without love triangles would be so refreshing. Alas, this is not that book. Still, the romance was a relatively minor aspect of the story, so I don't mind too much. Overall, I liked this book and would recommend it to readers looking for an epic YA fantasy.

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas

A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas is a retelling of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty."

Imagine waking up one day to find that your family is long dead, you've been asleep for a hundred years, and you're now expected to marry the complete stranger who just woke you up by kissing you. That's Aurora's life in a nutshell. While she slept, the kingdom moved on, power changing hands in dramatic and tempestuous ways while Aurora slumbered in the sealed tower, visited only occasionally by princes hoping to wake her with a kiss. Rodric, the one who finally achieves this feat, is the sweet but unexciting son of the current rulers, who plan to use Aurora's waking to solidify their political position. He's not the only prince on hand, though, as Prince Finnegan, heir to a neighboring kingdom, pays a visit to welcome (and flirt with) Aurora. Finnegan is everything Rodric is not: dashing, adventurous, charming. Meanwhile, revolution is brewing among the common people, as Aurora learns when she sneaks out of the castle in disguise. She meets a handsome revolutionary who makes her question the current king's rule and his treatment of the common people. But Aurora is a figurehead, a puppet -- and, thanks to her overprotective parents who locked her up due to her curse, that's all she's ever been. Can she change things by stepping away from the fairy-tale ending with Rodric -- or would she be better off trying to change things by staying with him and working at making things better when she is his queen?

I liked this Sleeping Beauty retelling, but I didn't love it. There's plenty of good stuff in terms of court intrigue, and some of the plot twists did surprise me. On the other hand, I think some readers will find that the pacing lags as Aurora spends a great deal of time trying to decide what to do. In my opinion, this suits her character and her circumstances, but readers looking for a fast and gripping read might disagree. Also, it's obvious from the somewhat inconclusive ending that this will be the first book in a series. Will I read on? Perhaps, if I come across the sequel and I'm in the mood to see what becomes of Aurora. Do I recommend this? Yes, but probably only to established fans of the genre, not to those who are trying out fairy tale retellings for the first time.

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