Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce is an urban fantasy with just enough elements of "Little Red Riding Hood" to make it count as a fairy tale retelling -- red cloaks, wolves, a basket of cookies -- but much more gore and violence (yes, even more than in the original Grimm tale).

Scarlett has seen too much to ever live a normal life. She fought her first wolf when she was eleven -- the wolf that killed Scarlett's grandmother, and took Scarlett's right eye with one brutal slash of its claws. Now, at eighteen, Scarlett is dedicated to fighting the Fenris, or werewolves, that stalk and devour pretty young girls.

Rosie is Scarlett's younger sister. She's been right behind Scarlett all her life -- including the time Scarlett fought that first wolf to protect her. She's continually trying to live up to her sister's expectations, fighting the Fenris along side of her . . . but Rosie longs for a slightly more normal life. Scarlett is driven to fight, while Rosie dreams of romance, of going to college, of having a life that doesn't involve killing monsters every few nights. On the other hand, Rosie loves her sister -- she sometimes thinks that the two of them share the same heart -- so it's not hard to share Scarlett's lifestyle. At least, not until their neighbor Silas comes back to town.

Handsome Silas comes from a family of woodsmen. He fought the Fenris with Scarlett before he left town in search of his own future. Now he's back, and Rosie is finding herself suddenly attracted to him in a way she never was before. Can Rosie and Silas find a way to be together that Scarlett won't see as a betrayal? And what about the increased threat from the wolves, as more and more of them seem drawn to the area?

I was somehow expecting this book to be much more explicit than it was. I think I read a critique of it a few years ago (maybe someone was banning it somewhere? I can't quite remember the details) that led me to believe it was going to be a more edgy read. Sure, there are dead wolves strewn across the pages (well, actually, they break apart into shadow when they are killed, so they're not strewn there for long), but that's about it. I kept waiting for Really Bad Things to happen to Rosie, who is the more vulnerable and sympathetic character, but actually, if it's not too much of a spoiler to say so, Rosie really manages to come into her own by the end of the book. So, all in all, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting to, and will probably read more by this author.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.) 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Coming soon(ish): Lists!

In the past few months, I've had a couple of people ask me for book lists.  Lo and behold, LibraryThing (my favorite website ever; good for cataloging your personal book collection and so much more) has just come out with a Lists feature.  This should make it really easy for me to create and maintain lists of favorites in various genres -- and I'll be sure to share them here.  I'll probably take a little while to play around with the Lists feature, but I thought I'd mention that they are coming!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Icefall by Matthew Kirby

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby is the story of a Viking princess, Solveig, who is sent, with her sister and brother, to a remote hiding place while her father fights a war. Solveig is neither beautiful like her sister, nor valuable to her father like her brother the crown prince. She is trying to find her place in the world, while feeling like a prisoner in many ways. While hiding at their remote hall, many of her father's soldiers sent to guard Solveig and her siblings are poisoned. It seems there is a traitor in their midst -- but who will Solveig suspect? One of her beloved siblings? A servant who has been with the family for years? Her father's most trusted warrior? The guard captain who has always treated her with kindness and respect? The skald (storyteller) who has just begun to teach her his craft? As hardships mount up and word from the king seems slow in coming, will tensions and suspicions tear the little group of survivors apart -- or will some outside force destroy them?

I really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that, for some reason, I was expecting fantasy (which it's not). Kirby really does a good job making Solveig's world real to the reader, and the characters all had strengths and weaknesses, so that there wasn't an obvious villain. I did think the pacing was a little bit slow in places, but not enough to really interfere with my enjoyment of the book. If you're interested in Nordic culture and enjoy books like Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley or Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, you should definitely read this book.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.) 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos is the winner of this year's Newbery Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction. It's the story of a boy (who happens to be named Jack Gantos; autobiographical stories were apparently all the rage this year), who lives in the small planned community of Norvelt. He's having a rather rough summer -- he's been grounded for various transgressions, and now his mom only lets him out of the house to help an elderly neighbor, Miss Volker. This is more exciting than it sounds: Miss Volker is the town's medical examiner, and she also writes obituaries for the local newspaper. That summer, there are a lot of deaths to examine and a lot of obituaries to write, as the town's founding citizens all seem to be dying off. Is it normal for so many octogenarians to die in one summer? Who's behind the sale of some of the town's houses to a similar community in West Virginia? Will Jack's chronic nosebleeds ever go away -- and will his mom ever let him off of being grounded? Is Norvelt under a curse?

This is a fun read, with a hint of mystery and some bite-sized chunks of history thrown in the mix. Do I like it as much as Okay for Now, the book I had pegged for the Newbery? Not quite -- but I can see its strong points, and it's definitely an enjoyable read.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.) 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

I'm on top of things this year -- with only three new Newbery books to read, I should be able to tackle them fairly quickly!

My first read of the three is Newbery honor book and National Book Award winner Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, a somewhat autobiographical verse novel about a ten-year-old Vietnamese girl.

It's 1975, and Hà lives in Saigon with her mother and brothers. Money is tight, but she is happy with her life there. The impending threat from the Communist regime, however, makes her mother uneasy. Should the family stay, or should they try to make their way out of Vietnam to France, Canada, or America? Eventually, Hà and her family find places on a boat leaving Vietnam on April 29th, the day before the Fall of Saigon. After a difficult voyage and a period of adjustment in a refugee camp, Hà's family is sponsored by a man from Alabama. How will Hà and her family adjust to life in a new country, where the language is strange and difficult and not all of the citizens are welcoming?

As with any verse novel, this is a fast read, even with taking time to savor a poetic thought here and there. However, even in this spare, bare-bones format, Hà's personality shines through. She's a little bit spunky, a little bit stubborn, and reminds me a lot of another Newbery Honor-winning heroine -- Ramona Quimby. Hà's struggles with schoolwork, brothers, and schoolyard bullies will resonate with readers, even those who have little knowledge of the politics surrounding the Vietnam War.

So, is this charming book deserving of the honors it has received? Yes, definitely.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Touch of Power by Maria Snyder

I've been looking forward to Touch of Power by Maria V. Snyder for a while now, and was finally able to read it. I found it an enjoyable read, though not quite as fantastic as Poison Study, Snyder's first novel.

In Touch of Power, Avry is a Healer -- the last of the Healers, in fact. When a plague broke out which the Healers were unable to counteract, a rumor spread that the Healers had caused the plague. Now, there is a bounty on the head of any Healer, and Avry lives on the run, rarely using her gift. When she risks healing a sick child, she is caught and imprisoned. She's rescued by a man named Kerrick, who needs her to heal Prince Ryne, a man Avry detests. Kerrick, however, believes that Ryne is the only man who can stop the evil tyrant who is trying to gain political control in the wake of the plague. Saving him could mean saving the lives of thousands. And Ryne has the plague . . . which means that, if Avery heals him, she will be killed by the disease instead.

The story held together well enough, but I felt like a lot of the suspense in the plot stemmed from Avry and Kerrick keeping secrets from each other, and making assumptions about what the other person was thinking or feeling. This is by no means uncommon, particularly in romance plot lines of any genre, so it's not exactly a deal-breaker for me . . . just something I tend to notice. Also, one small detail irritated me the whole way through. A particular plant, the Death Lily, plays a major role in the story -- and for some reason, the author chose to pluralize it as Death Lilys, not Death Lilies. It's consistent throughout the book, so not a typographical error, but I can't imagine why one would choose to do that. As I said, a small thing -- but it took me right out of the story pretty much every time I ran across it.

If you think you can get past the niggling details that bothered me, I'd recommend this book.  It's set in a different fantasy world than Snyder's Ixia/Sitia novels, so knowledge of her other books isn't necessary.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren is certainly a focused, message-driven work of nonfiction -- which is not necessarily a bad thing. I doubt I'd recommend this to someone looking for a straight Dickens biography, but for the reader who enjoys nonfiction and Victorian England, this is a good choice. While the book does talk about the life of Dickens, all of the anecdotes relate back to how they affected his attitude toward Britain's poor. Moreover, there are several sections where other reformers, both before and slightly after the time of Dickens, are highlighted; while interesting, these can also be a bit distracting. The back matter includes sections about child labor and orphans in today's world, as well as recommended websites and books for readers who want to know more about the topics covered in the book. All in all, a solid piece of nonfiction writing.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

The Crimson Thread by Suzane Weyn

The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, part of the "Once Upon a Time" series from Simon Pulse. Like most multi-author series, this one is of uneven quality, and I'd say The Crimson Thread is a middle-of-the-road entry. It sets the Rumpelstiltskin story in the industrial era, with an Irish immigrant girl as the main character. It was a fair read, and I liked how the author played with the conventions of the Rumpelstiltskin tale -- though I must admit that the epilogue made me roll my eyes a bit.

(Review copy purchased by me.)

A quick link before we return to normal

I am already running behind, with two recently-finished books that I need to post about -- so, this evening I'll be catching up on those.  But in the meantime, I ran across a poem by Kate Messner that I thought I'd share.  This was posted a year ago just after the ALA awards came out.  It's a touching reminder that there are more important things than awards, especially in the world of children's books:


Monday, January 23, 2012

Well, that was unexpected!

So, the Youth Media Awards are out.  If you're interested, you can read the complete list of winners at www.ala.org/yma.  The Youth Media Awards press conference always holds a few surprises, and this year was no exception.

There was no love for my picture book favorites, but I'm pretty happy with the Caldecott honors -- Blackout, Grandpa Green, and Me . . . Jane are all books that I read, though none of them were particular favorites with me.  I had also read the winner, A Ball for Daisy, but Chris Raschka's illustration style just doesn't do anything for me.  I do like A Ball for Daisy better than Raschka's earlier winner, The Hello Goodbye Window (after all, it's hard for me to really hate a dog book).

The Newbery award and honor books are all books I'd heard about, but haven't read yet.  I've already placed holds on them, so you'll be hearing about them here over the next few weeks and months.

As for the Printz, I was pleased to note that I had actually heard of most of them this year!  As a bonus, The Scorpio Races got an honor, as did Why We Broke Up (which I blogged about not long ago).

Some of the smaller awards were also exciting -- kudos to The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred for its Pura Belpré honor, Drawing from Memory for its Sibert honor, and I Want My Hat Back for its Geisel honor (people were talking about it for the Caldecott, but I think Geisel, the Easy Reader award, is much more fitting).

And Ready Player One did get an Alex award -- it's good to have been dead right about one prediction, at least!

What about you?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this year's crop of awards.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Young Adult Favorites: 2011

One more post about my favorites from last year -- last one, I promise!  I do want to highlight my favorite young adult (YA) books published in 2011 tonight, since the awards announcement is tomorrow.  I never have much luck picking candidates for the Printz award (the award for YA literature), and the committee often honors books that I have not even heard of.  Still, I do want to bring a little extra attention to a few titles:

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson was my favorite book last year.  I didn't write a review at the time because I couldn't quite express how much I liked it.  It's about Elisa, princess of a small kingdom and bearer of a godstone, meaning that she is marked to do extraordinary things.  However, Elisa is not a kick-butt heroine -- at the beginning of the book, she's overweight, doesn't know how to fight, and is, in fact, a little bit lazy.  She's a princess, and therefore basically a spoiled child.  The beauty of this book is how Elisa is transformed, over the course of the story, into a responsible adult.  Of course there are adventures, and a little hint of romance (relatively little romance, though), and some fights with Bad Guys, but the best part of this story is Elisa's transformation.  Carson also does a great job with setting, describing a rich and detailed fantasy world without big information dumps that detract from the plot.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater surprised me -- I was not a fan of Stiefvater's other books, but this one is in a class by itself.  Here's what I wrote about it after I read it:
The Scorpio Races takes place on the fictional island of Thisby, the only place in the world where water horses come ashore. They are dark, dangerous, and beautiful, and each November the islanders hold the Scorpio Races, where men ride the water horses, often to their deaths. Sean Kendrick, four-time winner of the races, will ride because it is what he does -- the races make him feel alive, and he has a sense of empathy with the horses that no other rider can match. Puck Connolly will ride because she must -- with her older brother leaving for the mainland and her landlord threatening to foreclose on her home, the prize money is all that will keep what remains of her family together.

This book is by times both gripping and thought-provoking. The romance grows slowly, none of this star-crossed love-at-first-sight business, and the atmosphere the author creates is truly spectacular.
Entwined by Heather Dixon is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." The thing I most remember about the book is how elegant the writing is.  The details are so finely crafted, and this is another book where the author does a really excellent job with the setting.  It also has some great gentle humor, and the relationships between the characters are spot-on.  I love a good fairy tale retelling, and this is one of the best I've ever read.

Divergent by Veronica Roth was my first really good read of 2011. Here's what I wrote about it then:
Divergent is a dystopian novel set in a world where humans have divided into five factions that co-exist peacefully, each faction taking charge of one function of government or society. At the age of 16, each person makes the most important choice of their life: which faction to join. Factions are based on which trait one most values: bravery, selflessness, intelligence, honesty, or kindness. Once a person has chosen a faction, the faction is expected to hold the foremost place in their loyalties, even before their family.

Beatrice Prior has grown up in Abnegation, the selfless faction which controls the government (because of their selflessness, they are seen as incorruptible), but Tris doesn't feel like she is selfless enough to spend her life in Abnegation. She struggles with the thought of leaving everything and everyone she has ever known, but choosing her faction is only the first challenge that awaits her. After choosing a faction, teens must pass Initiation -- different for each faction, but challenging and sometimes dangerous. To top it off, Tris may be even more different than she originally suspected . . . and she lives in a world where such differences can get her killed.

This tightly-plotted story will grab readers' attention, pull them in, rush them through heart-pounding action, and leave them breathlessly wanting more. The author doesn't pull any punches, either: Tris's danger feels raw and realistic. The characters are strong and complex, and there's just enough romance to add interest to the story without taking over the central plot. Fans of The Hunger Games will love this book.
Chime by Franny Billingsley -- I won't summarize this one, since you can read about it in the post I wrote last week.  I do think it's one of the strongest books I've read from the 2011 publishing year.

My list is all speculative fiction . . . what can I say?  I read a lot of fantasy!  And I'm going to throw in a bonus book which is also speculative fiction (another dystopia, to be precise):

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was one of the few "grown-up books" that I read last year (though it has a lot of elements that would make it a strong young adult novel, which is why I mention it here.  Well, that and the fact that it is made of awesome).  Here's what I wrote about it then:
I am geeking out over Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's a fantastic dystopian story set in the year 2044. The global economy is in the toilet, the energy crisis is truly critical, and most of the world's population spend all of their time in OASIS, a video-game world, to escape the grim realities of real life. When James Halliday, eccentric creator of OASIS, dies, he leaves his massive fortune to the first player who can find the "easter egg" he has hidden within the game. Ready Player One is the story of Wade, a nerdy teenager living in an Oklahoma City trailor park -- completely indistinguishable from thousands of other nerdy teenagers, until the day he finds the first key to Halliday's puzzle.

The world-building in this story was fantastic, and Wade is a great character: believable, definitely irritating at times, but completely likeable. I got completely sucked into the quest -- I might as well have been wearing an OASIS visor myself! Highly recommended, and if you are a gamer (or love '80s pop culture) you must go read this right now. You can thank me later.
The Alex Awards honor adult books that have great crossover appeal for teens, and if Ready Player One doesn't get an Alex, I'll be shocked and appalled.  (There's usually a good-sized list of Alex Awards, so I think it's actually a pretty safe bet.)  As for the others, I don't see Divergent winning anything, but it definitely has popular appeal.  As for the others, I've already mentioned my inability to accurately predict Printz winners and honor books, but I'd be thrilled to see at least one of them on the list.

I'll be watching the ALA webcast tomorrow morning (7:45 Central time), and you can bet you'll be hearing from me later to talk about how my favorites fare!

Legend by Marie Lu

Legend by Marie Lu is yet another young adult dystopia. (From that sentence, you can probably guess the tone of the rest of this review, huh?) Day and June are teens living in the Republic of America, a military dictatorship. (To picture what the Republic of America is like, think what would happen if the United States was split down the middle, and the western half of the US decided to model itself after North Korea.) June is a child of privilege -- at the age of ten, she got a perfect score on the Trial, the aptitude test that all students must take. Now, at fifteen, she is almost finished with college at one of the top military-controlled schools, and she is on the fast track to joining the military, just like her older brother Metias. Day, on the other hand, is the Republic's most-wanted criminal -- mostly because, according to their databases, he doesn't exist. When Day raids a hospital for medicine for his younger brother, Metias is killed, and June swears revenge. Of course, the two are drawn together through a series of coincidences, they fall in love, and much drama ensues.

This book has plenty of action, and I can see why many people like it. Both main characters are sympathetic, and it's easy to hate the super-evil government. But for me, that's where it starts to fall apart. For one thing, if June is so intelligent (a perfect score on the Trial is unheard-of), why is she so blindly loyal to a government that is obviously corrupt and cruel? She does discover some of their darker secrets over the course of the book, but what about the obvious stuff that they've been doing all along? It's not like they've made a secret of the fact that they are generally brutal toward the populace, and you have to wonder how the head of the government gets "elected" for eleven consecutive terms, basically unopposed. I also thought that June and Day's romance seemed a little bit hard to believe, based more on an instant attraction or infatuation than any deeper personal connection.

It's obvious that there will be a sequel (probably two, since trilogies are the going thing right now), but I don't think I'll feel any desire to read them. Maybe I'm just burned out on dystopias right now, but this is certainly not the strongest one I've ever read.

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

Friday, January 20, 2012

Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

My last read reminded me that I had a copy of Drawing from Memory by Allen Say that I needed to read. This graphic novel memoir tells the story of how Say grew up to be an artist, something some members of his family may have had a hard time accepting. As an adolescent boy, Say's family sent him to live on his own in the big city while he attended school. During his time there, before immigrating to America with his father and stepmother, Say apprenticed himself to a cartoonist he very much admired. Say writes and draws about the people who were important in his life as he was first working on developing his craft.

I enjoyed this little book more than I thought I would -- it was a fascinating picture of the life of a student/artist in Tokyo in the late 1940s and early 1950s. My copy is actually a galley, sent to me by a friend who got to meet Say in person -- so my galley is signed, with a little sketch by the author:

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, with art by Thien Pham

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, with art by Thien Pham, is a graphic novel about an Asian-American boy and his father's expectations. Dennis Ouyang loves video games, but his strict father always emphasizes the importance of academics and discourages Dennis from gaming. When his father dies a week before his high school graduation, Dennis goes out and purchases his first-ever gaming system. The rest of the graphic novel shows Dennis' internal struggle between his own love of gaming, and his desire to live up to his father's dreams for him. Can he succeed in medical school? Or should he follow his own dreams and make a career out of gaming?

I picked this up because I have fond memories of discussing Yang's American Born Chinese with my advanced children's lit class in grad school the year it won the Printz award. The two graphic novels have several similarities -- both deal with the Asian-American experience, and both contain just a few magical or mystical elements (in Level Up, four angel-like creatures appear at a critical moment to influence Dennis' future). I enjoyed Level Up about as much as American Born Chinese, though the art in Level Up is not as eye-catching.

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

One Good Knight by Mercedes Lackey

One Good Knight by Mercedes Lackey is just a fun read -- not particularly deep, but great escapism. It's about Princess Andromeda, heir to a small kingdom. When a dragon starts ravaging the landscape, Andromeda is one of the sacrificial virgins offered to appease it. A Champion appears at the last moment, rescuing Andromeda and chasing away the dragon. Andromeda and the Champion set off to find the dragon's lair . . . but what they find when they get there is not exactly what they were expecting.

My boss recommended this to me, saying it reminded her of Tamora Pierce, and I agree. Also, this book is technically the second in a series, but it stands on its own just fine.

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

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Middle-Grade Favorites: 2011

So, I posted about my favorite picture books a few days ago -- now I thought I'd mention a few great middle-grade novels from 2011.

Middle-grade fiction is the genre most often recognized by the Newbery committee (technically, the award could go to a picture book, early reader, work of nonfiction, poetry, play, etc. -- but those wins are in the minority).  This year I let myself be guided entirely by my own interests, so there are several books out there that are getting a lot of attention from reviewers, Mock Newbery programs, and the like . . . but if I didn't want to read them, I left them alone!  So, it's even more likely this year than other years that the Newbery Medal will go to a book that I've heard about, but haven't read.  (Of course, there's always the possibility that it will go to a book I've never heard about, too.  That's happened before.)  That said, here are my favorites:

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt -- realistic fiction, set in the 1960s.  This book has been a little divisive in some of the online discussions I've read.  There are a few coincidences that some readers may find a little over-the-top.  On the other hand, those of us who love it really love it.  Here's what I wrote about it when I first read it:
Fans of Gary Schmidt may remember tough kid Doug Swieteck from The Wednesday Wars. In Okay for Now, Doug's family moves to a small town upstate New York because his dad has a friend there who can get him a job at the paper mill. Doug's home life is rough, no two ways about it, and he doesn't have a lot going for him. In fact, at the beginning of the book, you might suspect that Doug is just another punk kid headed for juvie -- but then Doug meets Mr. Powell, and the works of John James Audubon. He meets a few caring teachers who are willing to look beyond his rough exterior. He meets Mrs. Windermere, who teaches him a thing or two about creativity and inspiration. And he meets Lil Spicer, who gives him an ice-cold Coke, gets him his first job in her father's store, and teaches him a thing or two about love and friendship.

The real beauty of this book is how Schmidt manages to foreshadow events expertly, but they still come as a surprise to the reader. Life lessons come hard for Doug, and he doesn't get a perfect ending for every little problem. Still, readers will find themselves cheering for him long before they reach the final page.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu -- fantasy; a retelling of the fairy tale "The Snow Queen."  I wrote a summary, but not a review, after I read the book:
Lots of things have changed in Hazel's life recently, and not for the better. Her father has left, and Hazel feels like he is ignoring her, caught up in his new life away from Hazel and her mother. Hazel is now going to public school, instead of the private school she's always attended, and she's having a hard time adjusting. But Hazel always has Jack, her best friend and next-door neighbor. Then one day, after a mysterious accident, Hazel doesn't have Jack any more -- he starts ignoring her, then he disappears without saying goodbye. Hazel doesn't believe that story about him going to visit his elderly aunt -- even Jack's friend Tyler's story about seeing Jack leave the park with a woman in white driving a sleigh pulled by wolves seems plausible, compared to that. Hazel packs her backpack, steps into the forest, and embarks on a quest through a shifting fairy-tale world, where the wolves lurking behind the trees are the least of her worries. As she journeys, the question that arises is, if she finds Jack, will he even want to be rescued?
I found it well-written, funny, true to the experience of childhood, and entirely magical.

Clementine and the Family Meeting by Sarah Pennypacker -- realistic fiction.  This is the fifth book in my favorite early chapter book series, so when I recommend it, I generally recommend starting with the first book (titled Clementine).  However, I think this one does stand on its own fairly well.  In this book, Clementine's parents call a Family Meeting, causing Clementine to wonder what she's done wrong this time -- but the meeting has actually been called because their family is about to increase by one.  Clementine is already a champion big sister, but the uncertainty of adding a third child to what she had always considered a complete family makes her a little anxious.  I just can't express how much I love the Clementine series.  There are plenty of early chapter book series out there with a female heroine, but Clementine manages to never be annoying, which is more than I can say about, for instance, Junie B. or Judy Moody.  I recommend Clementine all the time, foist the books upon young relatives, and talk this series up whenever I can -- it deserves way more recognition than I think it gets, sometimes.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall -- realistic fiction.  This book is also part of a series, but I feel that it stands on its own, possibly even better than the Clementine book.  Here's the review I wrote after I read it:
The Penderwick family is about to be split up for two whole weeks! While Mr. Penderwick and his new bride go to England for their honeymoon, Rosalind has been invited to spend the time with her friend Anna at the Jersey shore, while Aunt Claire and the three younger Penderwicks go to Point Mouette in Maine. Skye is extremely nervous about being the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick), and all three of the girls are disappointed that Jeffrey, their friend from the previous summer, is not going to be allowed to come with them. Then, at the last minute, word comes that Jeffrey's mother has had a change of heart, and he will be joining the girls at Point Mouette. Each of the girls embarks on a project: Skye is determined to keep working on her soccer skills, and make sure that no catastrophes overtake the sisters while they are in her care. Jane is writing her next book about adventure-loving Sabrina Starr, and is determined that, in this book, Sabrina will fall in love. Unfortunately, Jane has no experience in that department herself . . . until she meets silent, skateboard-riding Dominic. Batty begins collecting golf balls from a nearby golf course, and learning how to play the harmonica that Jeffrey gives her -- despite the fact that no other Penderwick has any sort of musical talent whatsoever. Of course, all of these storylines meld together into another sweet, heart-warming summer story of family and friendship, with a few surprises and, yes, minor catastrophes along the way. Readers new to the series should start with the first volume, but those who already know and love the Penderwick sisters will delight in their further adventures.
I'll give honorable mentions to The Emerald Atlas by John Stevens, Mo Wren, Lost and Found by Tricia Springstubb, Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George, and Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck.  Looking back, I read a lot of great middle-grade novels last year.  Two of my friends are on this year's Newbery committee (if they are reading this: Hi, Laura!  Hi, Peter!), so I'll be particularly interested in this year's results . . . and I'll be sure to post a follow-up here after the awards are announced!

What about you?  Any favorites this year?  Have you read any of the above?

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker was all right but not great. It's a fairly standard storyline: there's a Good Girl in a small town, and Complicated, Handsome Stranger shows up and makes her question all of her small-town beliefs.

Good girl Lacey Byer wants nothing more than a fun junior year with her friends, and a starring role in her church's Hell House -- a Halloween production that the church puts on to dramatize the dreadful effects of sin. Enter Ty, a new boy in town with a slightly mysterious past. He attends church, but he's not a fan of the whole Hell House concept, and he questions a lot of the things that Lacey takes for granted as truth. As he and Lacey spend more time together, talking about all kinds of subjects, she starts to question things as well, especially when a scandal rocks their church community and not everyone responds in what Lacey would call a Christ-like manner.

First off, I thought the author's handling of evangelical Christians was fairly sensitive -- a bit of a rarity in mainstream YA fiction. The ending is not conclusive, Lacey doesn't throw off all restraint and completely turn her back on her faith, nor does she convert Ty to all of her childhood beliefs. I could see recommending this to evangelical teens, as well as to those who find that lifestyle completely alien but are a little curious about it. On the down-side, I found the writing utilitarian: it was not riddled with errors, but there was nothing that elevated it out of the common run. Also, the big reveal about Ty's past was tamer than I expected, from all of the hype. I also had trouble with the size of the town as compared to the size of the church -- if it's a small enough town that everybody knows everybody, but the church is large enough to put on this huge production every year . . . it just took me out of the story a bit.

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Chime by Franny Billingsley has been getting some buzz (it was a National Book Award finalist, for one thing). After reading it, I'd say the buzz is well-deserved.

Briony Larkin is a witch -- she says so from the beginning -- and this story is her confession. I probably ought to warn you, though, that Briony is not the most reliable narrator in the world, so you might want to look and listen carefully to the rest of her story, and draw your own conclusions.

I'd further summarize the plot, but I've probably already given too much away. To me, this book read like a puzzle. I managed to put some pieces together well before the end, while others were a surprise to me. There's one place where I thought the author broke her own rules for the world of the story, but to say more about that would be to give away one of the book's big secrets, so I won't. All in all, though, I thought this was a well-written story with good world-building and an interesting main character. I didn't exactly like Briony, but I was fascinated to see what she would do next. I'd say I connected with this book on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one. I'd recommend it, especially if you like creepy, atmospheric fantasy.

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

Monday, January 16, 2012

Picture Book Round-Up

It’s the season of anticipation: the ALA Youth Media Awards (including the Newbery and Caldecott) will be announced one week from today.  Most years, I have an opinion on the Newbery (the award for the most distinguished book for children published in the USA in the previous year) – and sometimes one of my picks shows up as one of the books that earns recognition.  I usually have favorites for the Printz (the teen book award) – but the Printz committee usually manages not only to completely disregard the books I would have chosen, but to choose books I have never even heard of.
Most years, I don’t have much of an opinion about the Caldecott – perhaps I will have a favorite, but will not feel qualified to predict a winner.  Part of this is that my training in evaluating art is rudimentary at best, and part is that I pay less attention to picture books than I do to novels.  I use lots of picture books in my work, and I have my favorites, but I rarely spend as much time with picture book new releases as I do with middle-grade or young adult novels.
This year is different.  This year, at my library, we decided to have a Mock Caldecott election.  The main part of planning for this program involved me spending a lot of time really considering the year’s crop of picture books.  I’m not sure, but it seems to me that this was a particularly good year in the picture book world.  Some years, there is a clear favorite (for instance, it seemed like nearly everybody wanted The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney to win back in 2009), but this is not one of those years.  There are certainly books that are getting a lot of buzz, but there’s no single book that seems to be on everyone’s lips.  So, based on my reading and research, here are my top five picture books from this year:
Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Katherine Paterson, illustrated by Pamela Dalton
Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade
Perfect Square by Michael Hall
Say Hello to Zorro by Carter Goodrich
Where’s Walrus? by Stephen Savage
Of course, it's hard to choose a favorite (or even five favorites), and my choices may change between now and next week.  Even if the Caldecott committee doesn't choose any of these books, there are many others that I have looked at and really appreciate, and would love to see with a shiny sticker on the cover.
What about you, readers?  Any favorite 2011 picture books that you're rooting for as the awards roll around? 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is, of course, phenomenal. In the world of young adult literature, John Green is kind of like a rock star. His newest offering does not disappoint. I laughed, cried, and finished the whole thing in one sitting. If you're a John Green fan, surely you already know about this book, right? And if you're not a John Green fan, why not?

Hazel Lancaster meets Augustus Waters at a support group for teens with cancer, so that should tell you something about what's going to happen in this book, right there. What follows is an epic star-crossed romance involving a trip to the Netherlands, a meeting with a crotchety, reclusive author, a couple of Venn diagrams, more than a few video gaming sessions, and so much more.

I'd write more about this book, but it's always hard to write coherently about something you really like -- and the experience of reading it is still perhaps too fresh in my mind for forming a well-rounded review. In short: I loved it, and I recommend it. Of course.

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

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is one of the recent YA releases that I've been anticipating for some time. It's the story of Min and Ed. It's the story of a box full of random, worthless stuff. It's the story of a relationship that was, let's face it, doomed from the start.

The book is written from Min's point of view -- a letter written as she sits in a cafe, just before she takes the box of stuff and dumps it on Ed's porch. It's almost stream-of-consciousness in places, as Min explores the reasons why she loved Ed, and why (as per the title) they broke up. Min's not always likeable, but she's always real. Secondary characters are likewise well-rendered. Though it's realistic fiction, Handler has created a world of minutiae specific to the book, such as the names of old movies and movie stars that Min is always referencing, as well as brand names, restaurants, and other minor details. It's almost like visiting a foreign country, or perhaps just another region, where the big things are the same, but all of the little ones have that jarring note of other-ness. Min and Ed's story is similar: though the small details are specific to them, the big things will resonate with anyone who ever had their heart broken as a teenager.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure is a memoir that was right up my alley. As a child, McClure was fascinated with the Little House series. She grew out of the obsession, but when she rediscovered her childhood copy of Little House in the Big Woods, she also rediscovered the old fascination. Now, as a grown woman, Wendy does what she wasn't able to do as a child: she travels, researches, and experiments with the life so vividly described by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Over the course of about a year, McClure travels to each of the major Laura Ingalls Wilder home sites. Along the way, McClure makes some startling discoveries about the Wilder family, the history surrounding the Little House books, and, of course, herself.

I also loved the Little House books as a child, though they were not my only favorites. Perhaps the reason I never obsessed over the prairie lifestyle was that, back when I first read the books, my family was living at our own Little House on the Prairie, just outside of Perry, Oklahoma -- part of Oklahoma's Cherokee Strip (or, more correctly, Cherokee Outlet) region. (Laura Ingalls Wilder actually lived in a different Indian Territory, about 140 miles away in Kansas, but I didn't know that at the time. Even she thought that her family had lived in northern Oklahoma, rather than southern Kansas.) We weren't farmers, but we did have a big garden, some fruit trees, and a couple dozen chickens. I never churned butter, but I collected eggs from the chicken coop and made applesauce with apples from our own trees. The farm was surrounded on two sides by cattle, and on the other two sides by winter wheat. (Surprisingly, in the four years that we lived there, I don't remember any hailstorms, wildfires, or plagues of grasshoppers taking out the wheat crop . . . but then again, the wheat didn't belong to my family -- or Laura's -- so maybe that's the key.) So, though Laura and I were separated by about 100 years, I think I got my fill of the homesteading life growing up.

Wendy McClure, on the other hand, went searching or her own homesteading experience, with mixed (and sometimes hilarious) results. It was interesting to compare her opinion of the books with mine -- for instance, she mentions early on that On the Banks of Plum Creek was one of her favorite books in the series, whereas it was one of my least favorite. She relegates Farmer Boy to the status of an add-on, while it's one of the ones I remember most clearly. On the other hand, both of our childhood selves were dismayed and confused at the transition from the rosy conclusion of These Happy Golden Years to the bleak, disaster-filled, and brusquely-written pages of The First Four Years.

I've never felt the need to research the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families, but McClure's findings were fascinating and enlightening. In short, I'd recommend this book to anyone who loved the Little House series as a child. Reading the Little House series beforehand would probably enrich the experience of reading The Wilder Life, but it can be enjoyed even if your recollections of Laura's adventures are a bit hazy.

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

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Between the Sea and Sky by Jaclyn Dolamore

Between the Sea and Sky by Jaclyn Dolamore calls to mind and old proverb: "A bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?" Mermaid Esmerine has taken a vow to be a siren, one of the magical protectors of the sea. She looks forward to joining her older sister Dosia in this calling . . . but shortly after Esmerine takes her vow, Dosia disappears. Was she taken captive by humans when she ventured too close to the human world -- or did she join them of her own free will? Esmerine uses her siren magic to effect a painful transformation to a human form. She travels to the seaside town where Dosia was last seen, only to learn that Dosia's new husband has taken her to his home in the mountains. In the town, Esmerine seeks out her old friend Alander, one of the winged people known as the Fandarsee. Alander has grown up into a stuffy, bookish young man, but his strong sense of duty and his nostalgic fondness for Esmerine leads him to help her in her quest to find (and if necessary, rescue) Dosia. They face dangers along the journey that draw them closer together, and as they realize that their childhood friendship is blossoming into something more, they each must think about the challenges and hardships that a relationship between them would have to overcome.

There are relatively few mermaid books on the young adult market (compared to, say, vampires, werewolves, zombies, angels, elves, dragons, or ghosts), and even fewer that are well-written. This is one of those rare mermaid stories that strikes the right balance. Part of the success of the book, in my opinion, is due to the setting -- a world like ours, but not quite ours. I also love the Fandarsee, who are much more fascinating than the merfolk to me.

My only real issue with the book is how casually Esmerine takes her vow to be a siren -- it's almost set up as a made-to-be-broken sort of promise (sirens are generally fascinated with the human world, and there seems to be a high rate of attrition as they abandon the under-sea world for human husbands), and I felt all the way through that both Esmerine and Dosia seemed to take the promises that they had made very lightly. I also thought that the pacing was almost too quick in places. That's a rare complaint for me, especially with fantasy books, but I thought a bit more time could have been taken at the beginning to establish the setting and the relationships between Esmerine and her family. All in all, though, I found this an enjoyable read, and would recommend it to readers who like this sort of light fantasy.

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

You Against Me by Jenny Downham

You Against Me by Jenny Downham -- a YA problem novel with a forbidden romance. "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like." In other words, I can see readers who devour Laurie Halse Anderson and Jodi Picoult enjoying this book. It does a good job tackling the issues, though sometimes it felt ever so slightly didactic to me. Both Ellie and Karyn (two of the main characters) apparently like spouting trivia and statistics, which is extremely convenient when an author wants to work in tidbits of research that they found relevant to the story. On the whole, I thought this was a pretty good read, and its ideal reader will find it an excellent one.

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

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris

 In sharp contrast to my last read, The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris is a snappy 118 pages. It does a surprising amount of stuff in that short space, too -- there's some stuff about courtesy, friendship, and promises, but the book doesn't feel too didactic, partly because Morris seasons it all with a liberal does of humor.

I read the first few books of this author's middle-grade series a few years ago, so the humor came as no surprise to me. While this book doesn't have as sophisticated a plot as The Squire's Tale and its sequels, it is just as distinguished in its way. I wouldn't necessarily recommend Sir Gawain to adult readers, but it's one that should definitely be on the radar of anyone who works with students in grades 2-4, since tales of knights and their adventures have enduring popularity.

(Reviewed from an advance copy sent to me by a friend. Erm . . . some time ago.  I am not always as prompt as I would like to be about reading galleys!)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

Wildwood by Colin Meloy has many elements typical of middle-grade fantasy, so by my own reckoning, I should have loved it. Instead, I found it merely "all right."

In this massive chunk of a book, seventh-grader Prue is astonished and frightened when her baby brother Mac is kidnapped by a murder of crows, who take him into the heart of the "Impassible Wilderness." When she heads into the wilderness to rescue Mac, one of her classmates, Curtis, follows. Adventures ensue.

The book owes a considerable debt to Narnia, with its talking animals, White Witch-like figure, and a Stone Table -- er, Plinth -- as a place of ritual. Perhaps that's why I found it slightly stale; what may have been meant as homage came off as repetition. I also never really connected with the main characters, and the secondary characters were generally very flat. I might have pardoned much of this if the book had been shorter, but the length of the book was problematic for me, too. J.K. Rowling, you know I love you. I don't begrudge the Harry Potter books their length (well, maybe a few pages of the Endless Camping in Deathly Hallows), but you opened the door for authors of juvenile fantasy to inflict mercilessly long books upon the reading public.

I don't see myself reading additional books in this series. One redeeming factor: though there were a few hints of things that might crop up in upcoming books, the loose ends were generally tied off neatly (sometimes a bit too neatly, but I'm trying to avoid blatant spoilers, so that's all I'll say about that). If you're looking for a recently published middle-grade book with fantasy in a woodland setting, let me recommend instead Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, one of my favorite books from last year.

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

Friday, January 6, 2012

Love Finds You in Sunset Beach, Hawaii by Robin Jones Gunn

Reading Love Finds You in Sunset Beach, Hawaii by Robin Jones Gunn was like catching up with a friend from high school. Though at first it appears to be just another entry in one of those massive multi-author inspirational romance series (you know, the ones that are generally so uneven in quality and so tenuously connected that they don't really go together at all), it's actually the continuation of one of Gunn's earlier story lines. As a teen, I devoured Gunn's Sierra Jensen series -- twelve short books about the ups and downs in the life of a Christian teen in Portland. Unlike Christy Miller, the star of Gunn's other teen series, Sierra's didn't end with promises of romance for the main character, and though Gunn provided glimpses of Sierra's college days in books about other characters, not until now has grown-up Sierra had a book of her own.

Sierra has been working for a missionary organization in Brazil. When she gets word that the funding has been cut for her current position, she is faced with uncertainties. The organization has another position available, but it's not one that appeals to Sierra. When a friend offers her a chance to get away, Sierra accepts. She travels to Sunset Beach, Hawaii, thinking that an island vacation should be the perfect time for a little soul searching. During her vacation, as she travels to a friend's wedding, a series of coincidences throws her in the path of Jordan, a professional photographer. First at the wedding, and then in Sunset Beach, their paths keep crossing. Sierra and Jordan find themselves both drawn to one another and compatible in their beliefs and personalities, but is this the right season in either of their lives for romance? Jordan is considering taking up a corporate sponsorship to photograph surfing competitions, a job that would mean constant travel, while Sierra's job offer in Brazil would mean isolation in a small village. Can their budding relationship endure those kinds of stresses -- and are they even willing to test it?

This is a gentle romance -- there's very little kissing, very little fighting, very little suspense . . . the tension is all internal to the characters as they decide whether to pursue a relationship. So, for those who like fiery heroines and love/hate relationships, this is not the book for you. However, I would recommend this, first of all to fans of the Sierra Jensen series, and also to people who like an uncomplicated, romantic story. Gunn's writing, at the word-and-sentence level, is not always flawless (though better by far than the common run of inspirational romances), but she has a gift for creating relatable characters, putting them in interesting situations, and describing the setting in a way that always makes me want to go for a visit!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

My first book of the new year is The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. This book caught my eye in a roundabout way: I went to the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio and saw an exhibit of picture book art on loan from the Mazza Museum.  One of the pieces on display was one of Paul Zelinsky's illustrations for an edition of this book -- a beautifully detailed picture of a hedge maze, with a lake and a castle and a pavilion in the background. It was one of my favorite pieces from the exhibit, and I was intrigued to read the story that went with it.

I have read and enjoyed other books by Nesbit, so it's no surprise that I liked this one as well. Nesbit is one of those authors that I wish I could recommend to my younger self, because I think I would have loved her books when I was a child.  What about you, readers?  Are there any books that your childhood self would have loved, but you only discovered them in adulthood?

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

Late to the Party

(in so many ways.)

This year, I decided to start a book blog . . . isn't that so, like, 2007?  And here it is, five days into the New Year, and the blog is sitting here with no posts whatsoever.  Time to change that!

Brief introduction: I'm a children's librarian in a medium-sized Ohio town.  I read a lot of books (over 250 a year, not counting the dozens of picture books I read in the course of my job).  My reading interests are varied, though children's books, young adult books, and fantasy dominate.  I read a lot of new and upcoming releases, but mix in some older stuff as well.  My plan for this blog is to briefly comment on each book I read, and give more in-depth reviews when time permits.  I'll probably also post any bookish stuff that catches my fancy.

Thanks for stopping by -- I know this isn't the most entertaining and inspiring first post in the world, but here's hoping things will get more interesting when I start actually posting about books.  See you then!