Monday, December 31, 2012

Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings by Helene Boudreau

I almost forgot that I read Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings by Helene Boudreau several days ago, trying out a (relatively) new ebook lending service available through my library.

Jade is dealing with plenty of typical teenage issues -- finding a bathing suit that fits her full figure, shopping for feminine hygiene products with her dad (her mother died about a year ago in a boating accident), tongue-tied conversations with cute boys, and her legs transforming into a tail when she takes a bath. (Okay, so that last one? Not so typical.) Jade is discovering that she didn't know as much as she thought she did about her mother, and about her mother's death. Can Jade learn to control her new abilities, or are pool parties going to be off-limits for the rest of her life?

This was a fun light read. I appreciate reading about a heroine who is overweight and generally okay with that (swimsuit shopping drama aside). I'm not sure if I will continue with the series, but I'd certainly recommend it to teens who like mermaids and chick lit.

(Reviewed from an electronic copy borrowed through my library system.)

Gaudy Night & Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers are notable mysteries, but fans of the series generally cherish them even more for the relationship dynamics at play.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane returns to her college at Oxford for a reunion. She does this with some trepidation -- after all, she has not been to Oxford since she was a dewy-eyed undergraduate, and the intervening years have been marred with, among other things, a notorious murder trial and a career as a successful mystery novelist. Harriet dreads the whispers and insinuations that are sure to follow her, as well as the persistent, irritating questions about her relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey -- a relationship that Harriet herself has a hard time defining. Harriet finds that the hall of academe are still the same sanctuary that she remembers . . . until a nasty note is stuffed in the pocket of her academic gown, and she picks up a smutty drawing blowing across the quad at night. She shrugs off the incidents, but at the start of the next term, the dean calls her up asking for help. It seems that a vicious poison pen is at work, intent upon disgracing the college and distressing its staff and students. Perhaps most upsetting is the fact that it appears to be one of the staff who is sending the notes. Has a life of academic celibacy driven one of the women mad -- or is there something else at work?

Gaudy Night focuses mostly on Harriet -- indeed, Lord Peter is abroad for most of the story. He does return towards the end of the book, but while he is away and Harriet is puzzling out the mystery on her own, we get to see a lot of character growth on Harriet's part. She's been resisting Lord Peter's gentlemanly advances for years -- will this be the book where she finally puts the ghost of Philip Boyes to rest and accepts the inevitable? (Hint: the summary of the next book -- or, in fact, the title -- pretty much gives away the answer that that question!)

Busman's Honeymoon finds Lord Peter and Harriet entering into a life of wedded bliss, and evading the press as much as possible as they honeymoon in a picturesque old house in Hertfordshire. This proves impossible, however, when the body of their landlord is found in the coal cellar. It seems that Lord Peter cannot escape his calling -- but can even Lord Peter solve a case where the evidence has been almost completely obliterated by his own presence in the house where the crime took place?

These two books are a strong conclusion to the series, and I'm glad to have thought of rereading them. Perhaps in another ten or fifteen years, I'll have forgotten the plots again and will be able to enjoy another read through!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer

The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer is a fun, somewhat Sherlockian story featuring a feisty female protagonist.

It hasn't escaped the notice of Enola Holmes that her first name spelled backwards is "Alone." As the much younger daughter of the great Sherlock Holmes, Enola has grown up on the run-down family estate in the care of her eccentric mother, left often to her own devices. When her mother disappears, Enola sends for Sherlock and Mycroft, hoping that they will be able to solve the mystery of their mother's disappearance. Sherlock soon returns to London, promising to work on locating their mother, but not giving Enola much hope. Mycroft, bemoaning the condition of the estate and Enola's breeding and education (or lack thereof), determines to send Enola off to boarding school -- whereupon Enola runs away and sets out on her own to solve the mystery of her mother's disappearance. On the way to London, Enola stumbles upon another mysterious disappearance, and she just can't help but get involved. Perhaps a talent for detection runs in the family . . .

While I am not as much of a Sherlock Holmes aficionado as some I could mention, I did think this book was fairly well done. I liked the way Enola chose methods of escape and disguise that she felt Sherlock would not expect, and used the trimmings and trappings of a "proper young lady" to her advantage. The author obviously did her homework on the period, but she incorporated period details into the story seamlessly, without info-dumping.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the fabulous Katherine Kellgren. I first discovered her work by listening to the Bloody Jack series, which I have mentioned before on this year's threads. Kellgren does a great job of differentiating her characters, and really has a feel for light historical fiction such as this. I'll certainly be listening to more books in this series in the future.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

Timeless by Alexandra Monir

Timeless by Alexandra Monir is the first book in a new series about a young woman who discovers that she has the power to travel through time.

 Michele loves her laid-back California lifestyle, just her and her mother in a home as far removed from her mother's upper-class New York childhood as possible. When tragedy strikes and Michele must live with her grandparents in their New York City mansion, she wonders how she will be able to cope with her restrictive new lifestyle, snobbish school, and lack of close friendships. When Michele discovers an old diary, she finds that she has the ability to travel back in time. In the New york City of the early twentieth century, she meets Philip, the boy who has haunted her dreams for as long as she can remember. Michele and Philip can't deny their instant connection, but there are numerous roadblocks before them, not the least of which being the fact that they are from two different times, and Michele can't always control when she will be pulled back to the present day.

This is Monir's first novel, and there are some rough corners on this generally enjoyable story. While the writing is not as polished as it could have been, the plot is strong. Character development is minimal, and Michele and Philip's romance follows the love-at-first-sight pattern so prevalent in young adult literature right now. The ending does consititute a cliffhanger, but the sequel will be available in January 2013.

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke is the most charming early chapter book I've read since Clementine. Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa -- amazing Africa! -- with her extended family, including her African father, her Canadian mother, twin baby brothers Double and Trouble, and a host of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The plot is episodic, so I can't really do this book justice with a plot summary. Though each chapter stands alone, the chapters flow nicely together. This would make a fantastic classroom readaloud, teachers! I just love Anna Hibiscus. I'll be trying hard to get my hands on the rest of the series -- which is not as easy as you might think, since the series is published by Kane Miller, an imprint of Usborne, which is basically sold like Tupperware by independent sales reps, so not available through the usual channels. This is one book that's definitely worth the effort, though!

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Princess of the Wild Swans by Diane Zahler

Princess of the Wild Swans by Diane Zahler is a retelling of the "Six Swans" fairy tale.

Headstrong Princess Meriel spends most of her time escaping from her governess and attempting to emulate her beloved older brothers -- but when her father brings home a new wife, Meriel's life changes, and not for the better. Meriel's stepmother sends the boys away to school -- or so she says. When Meriel discovers six swans swimming on a nearby lake, though, she realizes the truth. With the help of a local family of witches, Meriel learns that she must sew shirts for each of her brothers from nettles -- and she must do so without speaking. In the meantime, her stepmother's cruel magic threatens everyone in the vicinity, and winter is fast approaching. Will Meriel be able to rescue her brothers in time?

I've always loved fairy tales and fairy tale retellings, but not all of them are created equal. This particular retelling is enjoyable enough, but does not stand out in what has become a rather crowded genre. I have a few issues with the plot (note to the squeamish: these could be considered spoilers), and they all come down to the ability of various magic-users to read minds. Meriel's ability to mind-speak with her magic-wielding friends undercuts the drama of her not being able to speak aloud while making the shirts (it feels like cheating, to be frank); and the stepmother's ability to read minds, but inability to learn about Meriel's brothers because Meriel's father thought only of his daughter . . . well, I just didn't buy it.

I'd recommend this to children who are discovering the fairy tale retelling genre for the first time, as it is a less frequently told tale (and the other retellings that I can think of are for older readers), and to fans of this fairy tale in general. Adult readers looking for a retelling of this tale, though, should look first at Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest.

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Emerald Atlas and The Fire Chronicle by John Stevens

The Emerald Atlas and The Fire Chronicle are the first two books in a juvenile fantasy series by John Stevens. I originally read The Emerald Atlas over a year ago, pre-publication, from an advance copy. Here's a link to my full review of that book. Basically, I liked it, but acknowledged that it has a few issues.

Which is pretty much how I feel about The Fire Chronicle. In this book, Kate, Michael, and Emma find themselves in danger once again from the Dire Magus. Early in the story, Kate is separated from her two younger siblings. She spends most of the book trapped in another time, and there she learns more about the Dire Magus in her quest to return to her family. Meanwhile, Michael is feeling the pressure of being the oldest sibling, especially since Emma feels no compunction about ignoring his opnion and doing her own thing when it suits her. Michael and Emma, along with Dr. Pym, set out on a quest to find another of the Books of Beginning, and of course they will meet up with dangers that they couldn't have imagined as they follow a trail of clues to South America and Antarctica.

I enjoyed this book about as much as the first one. It's not particularly distinguished, but it certainly fills a niche in a popular market, and kids who love fantasy will devour this series. Its adherence to the tropes of the genre is, in some cases, its downfall. For instance, even more in this book than in the first book, Dr. Pym upholds the Wise Old Wizard stereotype. In another recent read, "Who Could That Be at This Hour?", Lemony Snicket remarks that books like this one always have a wizard who is less helpful than he could be, and that is certainly the case here. It's obvious to the reader that Pym knows a great deal about the childrens' destiny, but for some reason he's dispensing that information on a need-to-know basis, and he's the one who gets to decide who needs to know what.

On the other hand, the kids' characters are well-written, and Michael, in particular, got some good character development in this book. I can't help liking feisty Emma, and one particular part of Kate's storyline sets up interesting possibilities for the third book. Readers may want to know that The Fire Chronicle does end with a cliffhanger, so if that bothers you, hold off until the third book is published.

(The Emerald Atlas reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher; The Fire Chronicle reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima

The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima is the fourth (and probably final) book in the Seven Realms series. This review may contain spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Raisa is now Queen of the Fells, and Han is her bodyguard and her appointee to the Wizard Council -- but neither of them are out of danger. The question of Raisa's marriage is fraught with tension, as both the Clans and the Wizards put forth candidates . . . and there are some who feel that they could do without Raisa at all. Meanwhile, Han's position gives him no protection from the other wizards, particularly the powerful Bayars, who would like nothing better than to have Han permanently removed from the picture. As war continues to rage in the kingdoms to the south, it appears that the Fells may fall to internal conflict rather than to invasion, though with the ambitious and ruthless Gerard Montaigne on the Ardenine throne, the southern kingdoms still pose a definite threat.

This book was a gripping conclusion to the series -- I read it quickly, finding it extremely difficult to put down. The characters and worldbuilding are strong, and the plot and pacing keep the reader engaged, to say the least. My only small complaint is that Chima occasionally used the particularly modern convention of breaking up an emphatically delivered sentence with periods. After. Every. Word. -- and, while I can accept that usage in a modern setting, I found it completely out of place in high fantasy. Other than that minor syntactical quibble, I really enjoyed this book, and will, I'm sure, reread the series in the future. I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys high fantasy. Of course, if you are unfamiliar with the series, start with The Demon King -- this book definitely needs the context provided in earlier volumes.

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

Monday, December 3, 2012

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket is the first book in a new series, All the Wrong Questions.

13-year-old Lemony Snicket is apprenticed to S. Theodora Markson, and together they travel to the little town of Stain'd-By-The-Sea for an assignment: to steal a certain object and make sure it is returned to its rightful owner. The job is not as straightforward as it sounds, though, and Lemony may be caught up in a bigger mystery than he had anticipated.

This book has the same feel as the Series of Unfortunate Events, though in this case Snicket is telling his own story, rather than that of the Baudelaire orphans. He still enjoys throwing in the definitions of some of the more complicated words that he comes across, and he makes veiled references to quite a few works of literature that some of his readers may recognize. (I think I got most of them, though one or two had me stumped. To tell the truth, figuring out which titles he was referring to was probably my favorite part of this book.)

The plot is weird and wacky and even less straightforward than the plots of his earlier books. Too few of the mysteries we encountered were resolved for my taste, and the end of the book left me feeling frustrated rather than satisfied. I also found that it took me longer to read the book than I expected, as I kept putting it down and going off to do other things. However, I fully admit that it might just be me, in this case -- so if you are a big fan of the Series of Unfortunate Events, you will almost certainly want to pick this book up and judge its merits for yourself.

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

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin is another fun and fluffy teen read.

Lizzie Summers isn't famous . . . but her mother sure is! As daughter of supermodel Katia Summers, Lizzie learned red carpet etiquette and how to deal with the media from a young age. The problem is, Lizzie doesn't take after her mother much at all, and as an awkward teenager, those red-carpet photo sessions with her mom are misery. When Lizzie accidentally lets slip to a reporter her real opinion of her mother's new lingerie line ("a little slutty"), she becomes the kind of YouTube sensation that nobody wants to be. While she's dealing with her parents' reaction to her faux pas and the usual pressures of school, friends, and boys, she is contacted by a photographer who is interested in using her as a model -- the photographer works with real people, not supermodels, and she says that Lizzie is "the new pretty." But if Lizzie agrees to model, what will her mother think?

Though this is definitely aimed at teens who are interested in stories of the rich and famous, it is refreshingly low on Mean Girls. In terms of content, this reads closer to The Clique than Gossip Girl -- there's a little boy drama, but nothing that should make younger teens too uncomfortable. I liked that the story focused mostly on Lizzie's potential modeling career, and though she made some cringe-worthy bad decisions, I felt that they were generally in character. While the plot is a little predictable, it's no worse than most of the popular books in this genre, and I would recommend it to teens who can't get enough of this sort of thing -- though I probably won't read any more of the series.

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

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Main Street series, books 1-3 by Ann M. Martin

I picked up secondhand copies of Welcome to Camden Falls, Needle and Thread, and 'Tis the Season by Ann M. Martin for my young cousin (the one I've been reading Narnia with), and decided to read them before passing them along. I was a big fan of the Baby-Sitters Club books when I was a pre-teen, so I was interested to see what this new series was like.

When Flora and Ruby's parents die in a car accident, the girls have no choice but to move to Camden Falls to live with their grandmother. They're not excited about leaving their home and friends, but they soon embrace small-town life, with the help of a couple of new friends.

This series doesn't have the structure and focus of the BSC series -- though the girls do embark on projects, often involving their grandmother's sewing and crafting store, the stories meander a bit more. That's not a criticism, just a comparison. Martin does tackle some heavier issues than one might expect for a middle-grade series by including a character whose parents are alcoholics, and whose father is verbally, and possibly physically, abusive. To an adult reader, the series seems almost too neat in its construction -- the prefect small-town business district with its collection of unique shops, the carefully balanced neighborhood diversity, the range of issues encountered by the girls, through which they learn the appropriate lessons . . . it's remarkably tidy, and feels almost sanitized. The characters are a little flat: Flora is the arts-and-crafts loving homemaker type, Ruby is a performer, Olivia is smart, Nikki is an artistic animal-lover . . . and that's about all there is to say about them.

Will I still pass these books on to my cousin? Of course. The issues I've mentioned are ones unlikely to bother the young readers for whom the series is written. So, while I feel no desire to read more in the series, I can still appreciate that it will hold some attraction to young readers. I can also see why it has not been as wildly successful as its predecessor.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

I thought Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan might be just a spoof of Twilight and other swoony vampire books -- but I was impressed to find that it is more than that.

Mel is firmly on Team Human. Sure, she lives in New Whitby, a town renowned for being vampire-friendly, but Mel has no desire to meet vampires, hang out with vampires, or (especially) become a vampire. She'd rather die. On the other hand, her best friend Cathy has always been fascinated by vampires. When a hot vampire guy enrolls in Mel and Cathy's high school, Mel fears the worst. Cathy is smitten with the newcomer, and he seems to return her interest. Mel is determined to save Cathy from a fate worse than death, whether Cathy wants to be saved or not. Mel is also investigating the mysterious disappearance of another friend's father, so she has a lot on her plate. Life gets even more complicated when she meets Kit, a human raised by vampires. Between Kit and Cathy, Mel is starting to rethink her position on vampires -- perhaps they're not all completely evil -- but she's still not about to let her best friend make the worst mistake a human can possibly make!

First of all, this book does bring the funny. There's the obvious question of why a centuries-old vampire would want to attend high school, and plenty of humor surrounding Kit's quirky adopted family. What really impressed me, though, was Mel's character development, and the way she comes to grip, over the course of the novel, with her own prejudices. It's handled lightly, of course, and that's all for the best -- the book would have been ruined if it came over all message-y. So, kudos to the authors for both writing something that gently mocks vampire romance, but is also worth reading in its own right.

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis is not my very favorite of the Narnia books, but it always ranks in the top three. Unlike other Narnia books, this book does not feature characters traveling from our world to Narnia, but is set in Narnia throughout. Shasta, a young slave boy in a seaside town in Calormen, escapes being sold to a cruel master by running away with that very man's prize warhorse -- a Narnian Talking Horse, though the cruel master didn't know it. On their way, Shasta and the horse Bree meet up with Aravis, a high-born Calormene girl, and her own talking horse Hwin. Together, the four companions face the dangers of the city and the rigors of the desert, foil a secret plan for a Calormene invasion of Narnia, and discover the secret of Shasta's heritage.

If you've never read the Chronicles of Narnia, this is not the obvious place to start. (I always recommend starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) This book actually takes place during the period of time covered in the last chapter or so of LWW, in the geographical region south of Narnia. It has plenty of adventure and humor (Bree, the proud warhorse, is often unintentionally funny), really good characters (if you're looking for a strong female lead, Aravis is probably the best the series has to offer), and a great scene between Shasta and Aslan near the end.

I've been reading the Chronicles of Narnia with my young cousin for the past two years. I hold to the original publication order, so we have finished five books now, with two still to go. We read them sporadically, whenever I come for a visit, so there are sometimes gaps of a couple months in between chapters (I try to find good stopping places, and have gotten pretty good at summarizing and recapping before starting up again). I remember listening to my dad reading the books to me when I was about my cousin's age, and I want to pass that experience along.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama is a story about mermaids, but probably not like what you're thinking. In this book, the mermaids are generally dark and vicious, even when they don't mean to be. Also, there are vengeful ghosts.

I keep trying to find a good angle from which to summarize the plot of this book, and I can't seem to do it. There are two interwoven stories, one in the present and one in the past, and of course the events in the past have a great deal of impact on the events in the present. The intricacy of the plot is a testament to the quality of the writing -- I didn't get lost or bogged down in reading it. There were a few things that were a little difficult to buy (the romance, for one -- I'm getting awfully picky about the romantic plots in books, aren't I?), and I think most readers will see certain twists coming before the main character does, but that's all part of the fun.

I realize this is a pretty vague review, but if you think complicated plots involving vicious mermaids and unquiet spirits might be your thing, this book is for you.

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

Wise Child by Monica Furlong

Wise Child by Monica Furlong is one of those books that I am amazed not to have discovered earlier. It is the sort of book that I would have relished as a teen -- I relished it now.

Wise Child finds herself on her own after the death of her grandmother. Her mother has long since left the village, and her seafaring father cannot be depended upon to provide for her well-being. The village priest asks the parishioners to take Wise Child in as an act of charity, but the whole village is surprised when Juniper, the village witch, offers to take the child in. Under Juniper's care, Wise Child learns about herb lore and healing, and real magic as well. Wise Child learns to love her unusual guardian. But when the tide of sentiment in the village turns against Juniper, will Wise Child and Juniper be able to avoid a terrible fate?

There's wonderful character development here, as well as some very nice worldbuilding. I would like to have a while to explore Juniper's house, which strikes me as a very comfortable and satisfying dwelling. Wise Child comes across as a little bit spoiled at the beginning of the book, but even so I found her sympathetic and interesting. Definitely recommended.

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin is a lovely little book which incorporates Japanese folklore and mythology with a young hero's quest.

Rendi is running away from home, but when the merchant whose cart he was hiding in discovers his presence, Rendi is stranded in the tiny village of Clear Sky. Worse, every night his sleep is disturbed by a pitiful moaning sound: the sky mourning because the moon is missing. Rendi may be the only one who has noticed that the moon is gone. Is it because he, like the moon, is not in his proper place? Through the stories shared by the villagers and visitors to Clear Sky, Rendi will go on an introspective journey that will lead him to the point where he is able to share his own story -- and, yes, to find the missing moon in an unexpected place.

This book is a companion to the Newbery Honor-winning Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I found it just as charming. The two books feature different protagonists, and stand alone perfectly, but they also work beautifully together.

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

Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas has lots of great elements, including a female assassin. I really wanted to like it, but in the end, it pales in comparison with similar stories.

Celaena Sardothien was the most deadly assassin in Adarlan -- before she was captured and sent to the mines. For the past several months, simply surviving one more day has taken all of her strength. When Prince Dorian comes to her with a proposition that would take her out of the mines and allow her to eventually regain her freedom, she accepts his terms: she will compete against twenty-three other fighters to earn the position of King's Assassin. Celaena is taken back to the city, heavily guarded, and trained to compete in the challenges. Once in the city, however, Celaena finds that she faces more dangers than the ones posed by her competitors. Someone, or something, is killing fighters in gruesome ways, and Celaena's guard detail may not be enough to protect her from this mysterious threat. Moreover, both the prince and his Captain of the Guard pose another kind of danger . . . to Celaena's heart.

There's a lot of action in this book, even though the competition for the King's Assassin position gets sidelined in favor of the other storylines. The worldbuilding is also strong. On the other hand, the language is stilted at times, and the romance never hooked me. I also couldn't buy Celaena as the most famous assassin in the world; she took too many foolish risks and was bad about not watching her back. Inconsistencies in the writing compounded this problem -- for instance, Celaena makes sure that her door hinges squeal so that nobody can sneak up on her, but a few pages later, one of the Love Interests enters her suite without waking her from sleep.

Even with these issues, I might have enjoyed the story if it hadn't reminded me so strongly of another book with many similar elements, but also better writing and character development. If the description of Throne of Glass intrigues you, I'd actually recommend that you read Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder.

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Drama by Raina Telgemeier is a cute and fluffy graphic novel about the drama that goes on both onstage and off in a middle-school theatre department.

Callie loves the theatre -- she's an aspiring set designer who loves all things Broadway. Though working with a middle-school budget and limited technical capabilities, she's determined to create a top-quality set for the upcoming school musical. When she meets two talented brothers who are also theatre fanatics, it starts to look like romantic sparks will fly for Callie backstage, but what will her other friends think of Callie's new relationships?

This was a quick read (as one would expect from a graphic novel) and lots of fun. It made me nostalgic for my own days of backstage drama. My only critique was that I thought Callie and her friends had more technical skill (and more freedom with the equipment) than most middle-school theatre students would have. I could be completely wrong about that, though. I'll definitely recommend this to graphic novel fans who are growing out of the Babymouse series and looking for something else just as enjoyable.

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

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Evaluating The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling on its own merits, without mentioning certain other works by that author, is a nearly impossible task -- but I am going to attempt it.

In the village of Pagford, the town council is split into two warring factions. When council member Barry Fairbrother dies, various members of the community immediately begin scheming about who will fill his vacant seat. In the ensuing chaos, secrets are exposed, careers are launched and ruined, and relationships are forged and broken.

If I had to pick just one word to describe this story, it would be "bleak." It's a very dark book, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel. I felt like I spent the whole book mucking around in the seedy underbelly of human nature.

The characters were, I think, the real strong point of the book. They were all thrown at the reader at once, which made it a little hard to distinguish them from each other at first, but I thought it was interesting how my perception of some of them changed over the course of the story. The main instance of this was Barry Fairbrother. He's not very sympathetic there at the very beginning, but as you learn more about him, he becomes more likable. Then again, perhaps that comes of being dead -- maybe we get the idealized version of Barry from his friends' memories.

I found that I liked the storylines featuring the teens better than the ones with the adults -- perhaps because I read too much YA literature? Sukhvinder was probably my favorite character in this book.

On a purely technical level, I found that the perspective shifted around abruptly without any clear indicators, sometimes in mid-paragraph. I'd be reading about Miles and Samantha, and suddenly I'd be reading about what Howard was thinking or doing, and I'd have to backtrack to see if Howard was there with Miles and Samantha, or whether the narration had just wandered over to him (and it was usually the latter). I never had this problem with (ahem) other books by this author, so I'm not sure why it was such an issue in this one.

I also thought that the storylines all intersected too neatly. All of the teens had parents who were major players in the plot, and there weren't many tertiary characters -- no casual friends on the outside edges of the story, etc. Even the other council members were barely even mentioned. It was just all so tidy, at least in terms of plot. There was only one small child in the entire book and he was just there for a big dramatic episode at the end of the story.

To add to that, I felt that Rowling tackled too many Issues. Drugs? Check. Rape? Check. Child abuse? Check. Political corruption? Check. Bullying? Check. Suicide? Check. Unhappy marriages? Check. Obesity? Check. Mental illness? Check. Teen sex? Check. Cutting? Check. Welfare reform? Check. Shall I continue? Every character was loaded up with secrets and problems, and it just seemed like too much. I think this could have been a shorter, simpler book with just as much, or perhaps more, of an emotional punch.

All in all, I don't feel that reading this was a waste of time, but I'm not entirely sure that I would read more adult novels by Rowling.

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Ironskin by Tina Connolly is a fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre with a slight post-apocalyptic vibe to it. Sound interesting? It is.

Jane is ironskin -- one of the scarred survivors of the Great War. She was hit in the face by a blast of fey magic, and without the iron mask that she wears, everyone around her would be affected by rage seeping from her wound. When Jane sees an advertisement for a governess position to Dorie, a little girl born during the Great War, worded in a way that makes it clear that the child is somehow different, Jane thinks she knows what to expect. When she arrives at the half-ruined manor house on the moor, however, both Dorie and her father are much more enigmatic than Jane could ever have expected. Her life there will prove challenging, but ultimately, it might just set her free.

For someone who is not really much of a Jane Eyre fan, I sure do seem to read a lot of retellings of that story lately -- this makes the third in the past few years. (The other two, if you're curious, are Jane by April Lindner and The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett, which is not a straight-up retelling, but certainly incorporates large chunks of the plot. And I also read Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn some years ago, so that would make four.) I like the original well enough, but I never loved it the way some people do. On the other hand, that might enable me to appreciate retellings without constantly comparing them to the original. Then again, that's exactly what I'm about to do, at least a little bit.

First of all, this isn't a straight-up retelling, so don't expect it to match up on every point. In some ways, this is a good thing. For instance, this is the first Jane Eyre retelling that I've read that actually makes the child into a fully-fledged character, rather than a vehicle to get Jane and Rochester in the same general area. I thought Dorie was interesting and realistic, and I was truly interested to see if Jane would be able to help Dorie control her unique abilities. In other cases, however, it is not such a good thing. For instance, in this story Jane has a flighty sister named Helen, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Helen in the original. This took me out of the story more than once as I tried to find some connection between the two Helens.

As for the story itself, I thought it started out with a nice blend of action and exposition, though it dragged a bit in the last half of the book. And I had a little trouble buying the romance -- it suffered at the expense of Jane's character development, which is not necessarily something to complain about. It appears that there will be a sequel to this story, and while I'm not sure if I will pursue it or not, I thought the author did a good job of tying up enough loose ends to make a satisfying conclusion, while still leaving open possibilities for future plot developments.

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

For fans of Gary Schmidt's writing, What Came from the Stars seems like a bit of a departure from form. For one thing, it's science fiction.

On a faraway planet, the last brave heroes of a doomed race are besieged. While the Valorim warriors hold the door against the O'Mondim invaders, Young Waeglim forges the Art of the Valorim into a chain and, with the last of his strength, sends it out among the stars, far away from the scene of the battle, to a little blue planet in a distant galaxy. The chain falls from the stars into the atmosphere, and from there into the Ace Robotroid lunchbox of twelve-year-old Tommy Pepper. When Tommy Pepper picks the chain up and puts it on, he develops certain unexpected artistic skills. Also, it transforms the supremely embarrassing Ace Robotroid lunchbox into something cool and spacey-looking. Tommy has worse problems than an embarrassing lunchbox, though: his mother has recently died, his younger sister is not talking to anyone any more, and his father is locked in a battle with developers who want the seaside land where the Pepper family's house sits. Their troubles increase when strange, unseasonable storms start ravaging the area, and houses in the town are vandalized in strange and disturbing ways. Tommy alone seems to realize that the storms and vandalism are because of the O'Mondim, who have come to Earth to reclaim the Art of the Valorim. Can Tommy stand firm against the invaders and do what is best for both his planet, and the other planet so far away whose fate is now inextricably linked with his own?

The main problem with this book is the first six pages. Schmidt opens the story with a detailed description of that last desperate siege. In a visual medium, it would be gripping. Unfortunately, in text, it is pretty much incomprehensible. Appropriately, Schmidt has created an entirely new language for the alien race -- but when you are reading a block of text that is rendered in an epic style, with every third or fourth word a made-up one, it is pretty tough going. Once the story shifts to Earth, it's a lot more engaging. I'm just concerned that the average kid, upon picking up this book and looking at that impenetrable block of text, will put the book down and move on to something more accessible. I know I nearly did!

Once you get past that first chapter, the going gets easier. Tommy and his father are engaging characters, and though Tommy's school friends are sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another, his teacher is brilliant and fun. Making Tommy's sister silent due to grief is an interesting decision, but one that I know I've seen in other books, which lessens the impact. The story moves along, trying to tie in the Cardiff Giant hoax with the alien races, which didn't quite work for me. So, while I liked the book, I wouldn't say that it's one of Schmidt's stronger works.

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

Floors by Patrick Carman

Floors by Patrick Carman is a juvenile puzzle novel. Next to the young adult dystopia, the juvenile puzzle novel is probably the genre where I most easily get "genre fatigue." This one was not good enough to raise it above its peers.

Leo is the son of the handyman at the Whippet Hotel, the quirkiest hotel in New York City. Merganzer Whippet, the hotel's enigmatic founder, filled the hotel with theme rooms, wacky inventions, and a rooftop duck pond. Then he disappeared. Leo and his dad are doing the best they can to keep the hotel in working order, but it's difficult . . . especially when somebody seems to be sabotaging the hotel's delicate operational balance. Is it the surly front desk clerk? One of the guests? The shady developers who want to buy the Whippet and tear it down so they can build a "real" hotel on the prime real estate that the Whippet occupies? In the midst of the turmoil, Leo, his new friend Remi, and a few highly intelligent ducks discover a quest left behind by Merganzer Whippet himself. Will solving the mystery help them save the hotel?

There's something appealing for young readers about books with this sort of fantastical setting. The Whippet seems like a cross between a hotel and an amusement park, and I can see kids really getting into the descriptions of Leo's adventures in the room that's built like a giant pinball machine, or on the double helix high-speed elevator. This adult reader was less amused. The quest didn't really engage me -- I found myself really disliking the absent Merganzer, and the conclusion of the story solidified that opinion. The characters were all fairly flat, as well. I might recommend this book to young readers who can't get enough of books like The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Westing Game, but those books are definitely superior to this one.

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

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab is realistic YA fiction. I'm a little more picky about what I read in that genre, since much of it is so bleak. However, I thought this book was quite well done.

Caro feels like she hardly knows her sister Hannah. For more than half of Caro's life, Hannah has been part of an order of contemplative nuns. How do you explain to your peers that your beautiful older sister is sequestered in a strict convent, that you only see her for a short time once a year? Hannah might as well be dead, Caro reasoned when she was younger (though she got in a lot of trouble at home for telling her school friends that story). Then, one day, Hannah comes home. And if Caro thought that explaining her sister's life at the convent was difficult, she finds it even more difficult to explain Hannah's sudden, unexpected return. As Caro tries to understand her sister -- who is still emotionally distant and obviously unhappy -- she uncovers a secret from the past that might explain both why Hannah left, and why she came back. But will Caro do her sister more harm than good in her attempts to help Hannah deal with the ghosts of the past?

There's more to the story, of course: a helping of boyfriend drama, a scientist priest who helps Caro with her own questions about God and the universe, and an ambitious science fair project all play into the plot of this book. I was drawn to the story because I wanted to see how religion was handled, and I am impressed at what I found. While Caro is not particularly religious herself, and has some hostility toward the church, there's an underlying respect for religion infused into the bones of the story. Despite Hannah's situation, Christianity is not the bad guy of the piece, and Caro's questions feel as genuine as her animosity. I'm glad I came across this book, and would recommend it to readers who are intrigued, as I was, by its premise.

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde is an interesting book -- and, like most of Fforde's books, problematic to categorize. Though definitely written for a younger audience than his Thursday Next books, it's hard to say exactly who the ideal reader of this book might be.

Teenager Jennifer Strange is not a magic user herself, but she is the acting manager of a magical agency. In a Britain where magic is slowly waning and being replaced by technology, the magicians are reduced to taking on tasks like plumbing repair and pizza delivery. Then their most reliable psychic predicts the death of the last dragon in the world -- an event that will almost certainly have a powerful effect on the flow of magic in the world, as well as freeing up an extremely valuable parcel of land. Through a series of events, Jennifer gets caught up in the drama of the dragon's impending death, and finds that she does not want the dragon to die, after all . . . which is problematic, because she's just inherited the title of the Last Dragonslayer.

Like all of Fforde's books, there's a lot of fun humor and wacky chains of circumstance and coincidence that all come together to form the plot. If anything, this book is slightly more straightforward than Fforde's other works, but it's still weird and wacky and magical. I enjoyed it, though frankly I'd rather have had the sequel to Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron instead. Jennifer reminded me, perhaps a little too strongly, of a young Thursday Next, and though the characters were all interesting and distinct, I didn't form much of an attachment to any of them (though the Quarkbeast was rather endearing in its own deadly way). I might read on in the series, or I might not -- the book was fun, but not Fforde at his best.

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett

On that same long car trip mentioned below, I listened to The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett. When Xander and Xena's family relocates to London, these siblings discover that they are direct descendents of Sherlock Holmes. They are inducted into a secret society and entrusted with a notebook containing Holmes' unsolved cases . . . some of which have tantalizing clues that might lead to solutions, even after so many years!

Sherlock Holmes, always relatively popular, has seen a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, what with the movies and the TV series and all. I can think of at least three children's mystery book series that are in some way related to Holmes. I have to admit that, while I have enjoyed some of the original Holmes stories and some of the recent adaptations, I'm not an expert on Holmes trivia, so I won't comment too much on that aspect of this story. The Holmes angle in this book mostly serves to tie together a possible series, rather than playing directly into the details of this particular story.

In general, the writing in this story was good. The plot was strong, with enough clues and red herrings to make things interesting. Xena and Xander are not particularly memorable characters, but they are fine for a plot-driven mystery. The things that the siblings encounter, and the actions that they take to uncover clues, are believable -- they are things that kids could conceivably accomplish. I don't feel any compulsion to read more books in this series. However, I will certainly keep this book in mind for when kids come into the library looking for mysteries.

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

Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin

I listened to the audiobook of Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin on a long car trip. In the past, I have very much enjoyed Austin's inspirational romances, and this one, set in Eastern Kentucky and featuring the packhorse librarians of the WPA era, had great promise. However, I found that a few glaring flaws made the story less than enjoyable for me.

The story is told from the point of view of Allie, a sheltered young woman who lives with her parents in the suburbs of Chicago. She loves books, and her job at the public library is a perfect fit . . . until the library's budget is cut due to the Great Depression, and Allie finds herself at loose ends. Prior to losing her job, Allie had been collecting books and magazines for libraries in Appalachia. When Allie's aunt and uncle announce that they are heading in that direction for a vacation, Allie rides along, planning to deliver the books to the library in Acorn, Kentucky, and to stay for a week or two and help catalog the books. When she arrives in the tiny backwoods town, she is shocked to learn that the librarian she has been corresponding with is a man, there is nowhere in Acorn for her to stay but at the library (which also happens to be the male librarian's home), and that living conditions in the little town do not include such amenities as electricity or indoor plumbing. Worse, the day after her arrival, the town's librarian is shot, and Allie finds herself caught in the middle of a web of deceit and intrigue.

My main problem with this book is that I did not find any of the main characters sympathetic or likable. Allie spends most of the story being Too Stupid To Live, complaining about her situation, being afraid of things, and reading solely as an escape. She grows incrementally stronger over the course of the book, but it was not enough to redeem her in my eyes. I also had some big problems with the plot, and the way other characters trapped and manipulated Allie into staying in Acorn against her will. It made it hard for me to like those characters, or to root for the success of the book's romantic subplot. The dialogue felt stiff and contrived in spots, too. To top it off, the plot meandered along at a leisurely pace, leaving me plenty of time to stew over my dislike of the characters. (In all fairness, this might have been because I was listening, rather than reading -- that can distort my perception of a book's pacing.)

I wish I could recommend this book -- I thought the premise was fascinating, and I am usually a fan of this author. Maybe next time I read one of her books, it will be a more enjoyable experience all around.

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, books 1-6 by Jeff Kinney

I read books 1-6 in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney in preparation for a program that I am doing at my library soon. Let me just say that I am not the intended audience for this series. On the other hand, if you know a boy in grades 4-8, he's probably read at least one of these books. They're massively popular with kids, but don't have the crossover appeal of other kids/teen series that have made it big with adults in the past few years.

The eponymous Wimpy Kid is Greg Heffley, a fairly average middle-schooler. His stunts and foibles are chronicled in journal format, with accompanying sketches. Kids love the humor in the series -- Greg is something of an Everykid, who fights with his brothers, does a halfhearted job at his schoolwork, dreams up get-rich-quick schemes that never pan out, and plays a lot of video games. Girls are still a fairly abstract concept to Greg, though with the release of the seventh book, that may start to change.

I read all six books over the course of two or three days -- they're quick reads, which further endears them to kids who are reluctant to tackle heavier tomes. I get a little annoyed with Greg's attitude at times, which probably displays the accurate characterization in the books! I wouldn't necessarily recommend this series to adults, unless you are trying to keep up with what's hot in the middle-grade age bracket. I might recommend them to kids . . . but most kids have already read them!

Since I assume some of you readers will have stumbled across this post doing what I did recently -- searching for Wimpy Kid library programs -- I thought I'd mention that for the program at my library, we'll be using some of the ideas from the Event Kit which can be downloaded from the publisher's website.  We'll play the Cheese Touch game (a modified version of Wink 'Em), have a trivia contest, and have the word searches and similar paper games on hand for them to take home.  We're also going to be making Wimpy Kid masks -- a very simple craft; I'll print out the outline of Greg's face and they will get to select which shape the mouth will be and stick it on -- and probably decorate sugar cookies with white icing and chocolate sprinkles to make a similar face (or, really, whatever they want).

(Reviewed from copies borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mini-reviews: Unspoken and Mystic City

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan -- a fun paranormal mystery with a little bit of romance. Reminded me a bit of Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, not in plot (other than both being paranormal-ish) but in tone. I enjoyed it, but can't find a lot to say about it. I'd recommend it to people looking for more YA paranormal stories.
(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Mystic City by Theo Lawrence -- in a future New York City, Aria wakes up missing some key memories, and must travel through parts of the city that her privileged upbringing has never exposed her to in order to discover what's being hidden from her. Another decent YA dystopia.
(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day by David Levithan is another book that's difficult to categorize or define.

Every morning, A wakes up in a different body -- always one approximately A's age, in a fairly small geographical radius, but that's all the bodies have in common. For one day, A lives the life of the person whose body A is inhabiting. One day, A wakes up in Justin's body . . . and meets Justin's girlfriend Rhiannon. A is immediately smitten, and decides to make that day a beautiful memory for both of them. Justin isn't a very attentive boyfriend, and A feels that Rhiannon deserves better. As A moves on to other bodies, A can't stop thinking of Rhiannon. A decides to go to her, to explain A's unique situation and see if there's any way to develop a relationship. Is there any way to make a romance work when you're in a different body every day?

This was an interesting premise, though a little heavy-handed at times. A's character is well-rounded, which is tricky for a character who is basically an untethered soul. A is both determined to do as little harm as possible, and anxious to develop a relationship with Rhiannon, a place to finally fit in. For someone who has been exposed to the widest possible range of human experience from the inside out, as it were, A occasionally comes across as kind of judgemental, as well. I found the story a little depressing -- I hope it's not a spoiler to say that the ending is bittersweet. This is a thought-provoking read, and while it falls short of technical excellence at times, it's a book that I can see many teens really enjoying.

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, a set of books that I can never coherently explain or summarize. They are a delightfully witty alternate-reality story about . . . and that's where it all breaks down. At that point in summarizing, I usually start blathering about Swindon and dodos and bookjumping and LiteraTech and the ChronoGuard and Landon and Thursday and Uncle Mycroft's inventions and Acheron Hades and so forth, and none of that means anything to you unless you have read the books. Basically, if tongue-in-cheek meta-fiction sounds like your thing, you should give this series a whirl.

In this book, Thursday is recovering from a nearly-successful assassination attempt which has her grounded from the Bookworld, possibly permanently. There's plenty going on in Swindon, however, as the government looks into reinstating certain SpecOps departments, the Almighty appears to be preparing a Smiting for the Swindon town center, the Goliath corporation has something nefarious up its sleeves, and Aornis Hades is playing her usual mind games with the members of the Next family.

It's all good fun, of course, and I did enjoy it, but I missed the Bookworld and all of its wacky denizens. The next book in the series promises a return to that world, so that's something to look forward to.

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

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

I listened to the audiobook of The Maze Runner by James Dashner. I can see why so many people (including my brother, who strongly recommended it to me) are fans, but for me, it was just all right.

Thomas wakes up in the dark, in a metal box that seems to be moving. He doesn't remember anything about his past, not even his last name. He emerges from the box into the Glade, an area in the center of a huge maze, surrounded by a large group of teenage boys who, like Thomas, have no memory of what life was like before they were placed in the maze. In order to survive, each of the boys has a job. Most are support positions, like farming or cleaning, but an elite few are Maze Runners, who travel through the maze each day in order to map the maze and discover a way out. The maze shifts each day, and though the boys have been in the maze for two years, they have not yet been able to locate the maze's exit.

Then, shortly after Thomas arrives, everything starts to change.

I had two main problems with this book: I didn't buy the scenario, and I didn't connect with the characters. The boys all seemed strangely reserved, focused on survival at the expense of humor, empathy, and friendship. Nobody was willing to share information with Thomas, despite the fact that they were all in the same boat. While this did build suspense, it didn't make a lot of sense to me. It was also evident that the boys were placed in the maze as some sort of experiment, but the number of casualties made me think that it was not a very well-run experiment. I'm told that the nature of the experiment is revealed in future books, but viewing this book as a stand-alone entity, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

On the other hand, the book does have a lot of adventure and suspense, and for readers who enjoyed the harrowing life-or-death aspects of The Hunger Games, this is a pretty good readalike. I listened to the audiobook, and I feel that the narrator did a creditable job of differentiating the characters and conveying the emotions inherent in the story.

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

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

In The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan, the Prophecy of the Seven begins to come together as Percy, Annabeth, Jason, Piper, Frank, Hazel, and Leo are united in a quest that will take them across the ocean to Rome and beyond.

The quest does not begin smoothly. Mysterious forces are at work to ensure that the old conflict between the Greek and Roman demigods persists. The two camps seem to be on track for a deadly battle as the Seven travel together toward the Mediterranean, a sea that is home to legendary monsters and patently unfriendly to demigods. And conflict stirs in the angsty teenage hearts of the seven demigods who travel there, as well. . . .

So, of course I enjoyed this book. Naturally, I would recommend starting at the beginning of the Percy Jackson series and going from there, in order to appreciate all of the backstory, but fans of the series will find this book on par with its predecessors. A few caveats: the ending is more of a cliffhanger than we've seen so far -- not enough to be painful, but certainly enough to make me more than usually impatient for the next book. Also, as I rather snarkily implied above, there's more teenage angst in this book than in any of the earlier books -- mostly a product of putting seven teens together in a confined space, six of whom are couples at various stages in their relationships, and two of whom are boys who are used to being in positions of leadership, and don't take kindly to being put in second place in any given situation. Riordan has created seven strong and distinct characters, but not all of them get to be point-of-view characters in this story, which may disappoint some fans.

On the other hand, I'm always amazed at the depth and breadth of research that the author must do in order to keep coming up with authentic monsters, gods, and heroes to populate this series. I often booktalk the Percy Jackson books to parents and teachers as having a "sneaky educational" aspect to it -- I know I have learned stuff about Greek and Roman mythology from the series! I can't wait to see what happens to the characters in the next installment.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan were rereads for me, in preparation for reading the next book in the series.  Here's the review I wrote after my first reading of The Lost Hero:
 Jason, Piper, and Leo are not your average juvenile delinquents.  Leo may be ADHD and a chronic runaway from every foster home he's ever been sent to, but he also has a strange affinity for mechanical objects . . . and fire.  Piper may be a bit of a kleptomaniac -- or perhaps she's just really persuasive.  After all, is it really stealing if you can talk the sales clerk in to just handing you the merchandise?  And Jason . . . Jason doesn't really know who, or what, he is.  All he knows is that he woke up in the back of a schoolbus between Leo and Piper, and they seem to have been friends with him for months.  Jason doesn't remember any of it, or anything else about his life, including his last name.  There are some vague hints, including a mysterious tattoo and a heavy gold coin that turns into a sword when he flips it (a javelin, if it comes up tails), but before Jason can even piece together a few basic facts, he's in the middle of a fight with some nasty wind spirits on an observation platform over the Grand Canyon, and he, Leo, and Piper are fighting for their lives.  Fortunately, they are able to hold off until a back-up crew arrives, and they are whisked away in a flying chariot to a place called Camp Half-Blood.  Even there, however, Jason finds few answers to his many questions about his identity, his family, and his quest.

Fans of Riordan's Percy Jackson series will be ecstatic to pick up this first book in a new series about the demigods of Camp Half-Blood.  Many favorite characters make appearances, but in this book, the action follows the three newcomers -- and there's certainly plenty of action, as the three face new challenges on a  (sometimes literally) whirlwind quest to rescue the kidnapped goddess Hera before the Winter Solstice.  Meanwhile, the campers of Camp Half-Blood are preoccupied by the disappearance of Percy Jackson.  Clever, mythology-savvy readers will be able to piece together the mysteries of Jason's identity, Percy's disappearance, and Hera's capture (and yes, the three are all related) before the big reveal at the end, but whether they do or not, all of Riordan's fans are certain to enjoy the ride.  It's best, though not essential, to read the Percy Jackson series before starting this book, in order to obtain background information.

In The Son of Neptune, the focus shifts back to Percy Jackson, but he's not at Camp Half-Blood. Like Jason in The Lost Hero, Percy has lost most of his memories, and he finds himself at a camp that feels both right and wrong. Camp Jupiter is home to the demigod children of the Roman pantheon -- and Rome never had a lot of affection for Neptune and the sea. When Mars appears and issues a quest, Percy and two other misfit demigods set out for Alaska, known as "the land beyond the gods." In the far north, Percy and his companions won't be able to rely on help from their godly parents, and they face challenges from giants and monsters, as well as dealing with their own personal issues.

Like all of Riordan's books, this was a lot of fun to read. The new characters, Frank and Hazel, are sweet and likable. There is plenty of action, of course, and lots of Riordan's trademark humor (the part with the Amazons was my favorite). This is an enjoyable read for fans of the series.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles

See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles packs an emotional punch.

Twelve-year-old Fern loves her family, but sometimes she is also embarrassed by them -- pretty standard feelings for any twelve-year-old, really. She sometimes feels resentful of her siblings, particularly her younger brother Charlie, who came along as a "surprise" three years ago, and now seems to soak up most of her parents' attention. Fern adores her fourteen-year-old brother Holden, but Holden is going through his own difficult times, and there are some things that Fern can't help with. Oldest sister Sara is taking a year off between high school and college, working at the family's diner and getting into some trouble of her own. Is it any wonder that Fern feels invisible at times?

When the unthinkable happens, Fern and her family must each deal with grief, guilt, and loss. Will tragedy pull Fern's family apart?

This is definitely a tearjerker of a book. I knew from the start that there would be tragedy, but expected it to come from a different direction. Knowles does a great job in this book of showing the emotions, not just of Fern, but of all of the characters. For those of us who are thinking about the upcoming awards season, this is certainly one to keep an eye on. It's not my favorite of the year so far, but it's definitely a strong contender.

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

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny -- Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath is beautifully weird and wacky, with thought-provoking undertones.
Madeline has always felt protective of her artistic hippie parents. When they are kidnapped by a nefarious gang of foxes, though, she's not quite sure where to turn. Fortunately for Madeline, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny have recently embarked on a career as private eyes. Will these well-meaning but inexperienced detectives be able to help Maddie rescue her parents?

The plot sounds farfetched, I know, but this is a fun (if slightly surreal) read, and there are a lot of one-line zingers that made me giggle. Fans of juvenile literature, particularly Horvath's other works, will probably enjoy this book.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson is the sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, and picks up soon after where that book left off. Therefore, this review will probably contain some spoilers for The Girl of Fire and Thorns -- you've been warned.

Elisa is now a queen and a hero, and somebody out there wants her dead. While she is beloved by most of her people, she's still young, foreign, female, and inexperienced, and she's still feeling her way as she tries to balance power with kindness. Also, there's a hired assassin attempting to take her out. When Elisa learns of a strong source of magic -- one that she, as bearer of the Godstone, is uniquely able to access, she sets out on a quest. She's accompanied by a small party, not all of whom can be trusted. Elisa is falling in love with one of her companions, but she is once again faced with the need to make a politically advantageous marriage. Will Elisa ever be able to follow her heart? Will she even live long enough to do so?

This second book has all of the character development and complexity that made the first book so wonderful, along with a heightened sense of adventure and a bit more romance. It's hard for me to love the second book in a series quite as much as I loved the first book, especially when the first book completely knocked my socks off, but Crown of Embers is a worthy successor to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, and I'm very much looking forward to the next book in the series.

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I read The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson last fall, but didn't take the time to write a review of it then, even though it was one of my favorite reads of the year. I recently reread it in preparation for reading its sequel, and I loved it as much the second time as I did the first.

Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza of Orovalle is not one of the sword-wielding, butt-kicking heroines that one encounters in some fantasy novels. She's not known for her bravery or her skill with a blade. She's known for her scholarship, her fondness for pastries, and her skill at embroidery. She's overweight and (mostly) content to be so. The only other unique thing about Elisa is that she bears the Godstone in her bellybutton -- one person in a century is given this mysterious gift, marked as someone who will do a great act of service.

Elisa has always know that, as the younger princess, she will make a politically advantageous marriage. When she is betrothed to Alejandro de Vega, king of Joya d'Arena, she prays that her husband will be old and ugly, that he will not mind that he is marrying her and not her lovely older sister. Instead, she finds Alejandro to be handsome, charming . . . and weak. All is not well in Joya d'Arena -- criminals and revolutionaries lurk in the jungle, an invading army menaces the territories to the east, and the royal court is riddled with intrigue and political backstabbing. Then, something happens that Elisa never expected, and she is thrown into a situation that changes her inside and out. When faced with the biggest challenges life has ever thrown at her, Elisa finds hidden reserves of strength and courage.

I love so many things about this book. Elisa's character development is pitch-perfect, and she's believable and relatable all the way through. The secondary characters are well-drawn, the setting is fully described (though I wish the book included a map), and Carson does not shy away from hard decisions about the lives and deaths of really likable characters. I also like the way religion is handled in the book, and how central it is to Elisa's life. I strongly recommend this book to all fantasy fans, and I know it's one I will return to often.

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

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Viva Jacquelina by L.A. Meyer

Viva Jacquelina!: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Over the Hills and Far Away by L.A. Meyer is the tenth book in the Bloody Jack series. I want to talk about this book in a somewhat spoilery fashion, so if you are a fan of the series and have not yet read the book, you may want to read it before reading this post. Likewise, if you are not yet a fan of the series, you should take a look at Bloody Jack and go from there. If you like swashbuckling historical adventure stories for teens, you will adore this series. It's even better if you listen to the audiobooks, narrated by the incomparable Katherine Kellgren.

That's my plug for the series . . . now the spoilers shall commence:

To tell the truth, this is the first Bloody Jack book that I have been less than satisfied with. Part of the problem may have been that Jacky spends most of the story on land (she's always at her best when she's at sea) and separated, not just from Jaimy (par for the course), but also from Higgins and all of her other friends. Naturally, she meets a few more notable historical figures of the time period -- I'm not going to quibble at that; sure, it's over-the-top, but the tall-tale feel is a stylistic decision on the part of the author, and is consistent with the rest of the series.

My other problem with this book was that I didn't feel any heat between Jacky and Jaimy. This problem actually started in the previous book, with Jaimy's temporary insanity and Jacky spending a whole lot of time with the charming Lord Richard Allen -- I got the feeling that Jacky was only rescuing Jaimy from himself out of a sense of duty (it was, after all, her supposed death that drove him mad), and that if she had her choice at that point, she would have taken Lord Richard. In this book, Jacky spends a lot of time leading on a boy several years younger than herself -- I felt badly for him, since it seemed to me that Jacky never made a point of telling him, as she was so fond of doing with other boys in previous books, that she was Promised To Another. (I cynically wonder if she chose this boy to toy with because he was not much of a threat to her virtue, or what remains of it.) Jaimy, meanwhile, is off successfully resisting Seedra's charms in Rangoon, and planning on getting back to Jacky, but in achieving a state of Zen he loses some of his typical ardor. In real life, I would expect Jacky and Jaimy to grow apart, especially since they never get to see each other or spend much time together, but so much of the dramatic tension of the series rides on Jacky and Jaimy's romance that it seems a little anticlimactic for them to drift apart as they seem to be doing.

Of course, there were things that I liked about this book, and of course I will continue to read the series.  I'm just beginning to wonder if it might be time for the series to start drawing to a close.

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