Monday, February 27, 2012

Girl Meets Boy: Because There Are Two Sides to Every Story by Kelly Milner Halls

I received Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. This short story collection consists of several paired stories, with two celebrated YA authors each telling one side of a love story. When a collection features names like Chris Crutcher, Ellen Wittlinger, Joseph Bruchac, and Rita Williams-Garcia, my expectations run high . . . but in this case, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Nearly all of the stories in the book feature a high level of teenage angst, but to me, it almost seemed like too much -- it felt like they were trying too hard to be hip, edgy, and relevant. Maybe it's just the normal difficulty of cramming fully-fledged characters and a well-developed plot into the space afforded by a short story, but many of the stories felt a little rushed and disjointed to me. And, though this may sound contradictory, I don't think the book lived up to its premise, either. In the introduction, Halls describes her inspiration for the book as a story of a teenage couple's breakup, in which one person's action was interpreted completely differently by the two halves of the couple. While I wasn't expecting all of these stories to be breakup tales, it seemed like the protagonists in many of the stories were pretty much on the same page -- there was not a lot of dramatic tension created by miscommunication or characters misjudging each others' motives.

Other reviewers seem to have enjoyed this book much more than I did, so perhaps it's just that I wasn't in the mood for teenage angst . . . but, all in all, this is a book that I can't see myself recommending.

(Advance review copy courtesy of the publisher, obtained through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine takes on one tempestuous moment in history and explores it with a great deal of heart and a few touches of humor.

It's the fall of 1958, the year after the Little Rock Nine were the first black students to integrate into Little Rock's Central High School. In an attempt to stop the push to integrate, the school board has decided not to open the high schools. The still-segregated elementary and junior highs continue to function as usual, but nobody in Little Rock remains entirely untouched by the school closings.

Painfully shy seventh-grader Marlee Nisbett would rather solve math problems than say even five words to anyone outside of her family. That begins to change for her when Liz, a new girl at school, befriends Marlee and helps her take the first steps toward speaking up a little bit more. Their friendship is cemented as the two girls work together on a class project. Then, one day, Liz disappears, and Marlee is left on her own again. Will Marlee ever find her voice? Will she discover that some things are important enough to speak out about?

This well-written exploration of the events in 1958 Little Rock kept me up late reading -- always a mark of a good, gripping read. I found Marlee to be a very sympathetic narrator, and the secondary characters were generally nuanced and complex as well. I'd recommend this to those who enjoy works of historical fiction like The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 and Moon Over Manifest.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is a lovely light romance in the style of Jane Austen, with just a hint of fantasy.

Jane Ellsworth is not blessed with the beauty of her younger sister Melody, but she excels in artistic pursuits such as music, painting, and "glamour," or the ability to manipulate magic to create illusions. Both Jane and Melody wish to marry well, but opportunities in their quiet neighborhood are scarce, and Jane, with her plain features, has nearly resigned herself to the fate of a spinster. Will love ever come her way?

Kowal does a good job of echoing Austen's tone, though Kowal's novel is simpler than any of Austen's. The plot is reminiscent of Sense and Sensibility, but it's not just a lifeless copy -- Kowal's story is a gracefully balanced homage with plenty of unique details. The magic system is a perfect fit for this sort of story, enhancing but not overpowering the plot. I look forward to reading more by this author.  Many thanks to my brother for this excellent recommendation!

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn is a stand-alone fantasy novel by one of my favorite authors. I've been following Shinn's new publications ever since I discovered her excellent Twelve Houses series, and this book did not disappoint.

Zoe Ardelay has been living in exile ever since her father did something that put him out of favor at court. When her father dies and Darien Selast, the king's chief advisor, appears to take Zoe back to the palace, Zoe must quickly learn to navigate the dangerous waters of the royal court.

That summary is a bit brief, but there are so many interesting plot twists that I didn't want to give anything away. One thing I will say: Shinn does a great job of coming up with new magic systems and societies. I'd love reading more books set in Zoe's world, so I'm hoping that this book will eventually expand into a series in its author's imagination.

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

Monday, February 20, 2012

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham is my first audiobook this year. With a short commute to work, I find myself listening to audiobooks only on longer trips. This one was all right but not fantastic, both in terms of the story and the narration. I loved the voices that the narrator used to differentiate the characters, but his "normal" narrator voice was a little choppy, like he was over-enunciating the words. As for the story . . .

Max the Wolf is a boy scout who finds himself in the middle of a forest, with no clear idea of how he got there, or of anything that has happened to him in the recent past. As he starts exploring his surroundings, he meets a talking badger named Banderbrock, who has also just found himself in the unfamiliar forest. The two are later joined by McTavish the Monster (actually a fierce barn cat) and Sheriff Walden, an easygoing black bear. They are pursued by the Blue Cutters, a mysterious group that seems intent upon harming newcomers to the woods, and the four friends must make for a sanctuary where they can find safety and answers to their questions.

This was a fun book to listen to, and I did enjoy it. However, I had a few problems with it. There were a couple of instances where the writing stumbled -- a character would do or say something, and then do or say the opposite a moment later, with no stated reason for the change. Also, while I liked the solution to the mystery of why Max and his friends were in the forest, I found the very end of the story strange and unsatisfactory. One more nit-picky detail: the narrator establishes early on that the story is set in the autumn (and the action takes place within the space of a couple months at most), but there's also a reference to cottonwood "snow" and the group finding strawberries to eat -- both of those things usually happen in early summer, months before the stated time of the book. Sure, it's fantasy . . . but it took me out of the story. And, apart from the talking beasts and other colorful characters, the world of the story is supposed to be similar to our own, with the same sorts of plants and wildlife -- so, strawberries in September break the stated "rules" of the book.

Despite my little quibbles with the book, I would recommend it to readers who enjoy this sort of adventure story and find the description appealing. The bad guys are well-done, and the mystery, while not constantly at the forefront, makes a good explanation in the end for some of the things that seem puzzling throughout.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Silver Birch, Blood Moon, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

While on a short vacation, I read Silver Birch, Blood Moon -- a short story collection edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. Like many of their compilations, it's made up of fairy tale retellings for grown-ups. I was fascinated at the almost defensive-sounding introduction . . . fairy tale retellings for adults and teens are so prevalent now, but were decidedly less common in 1999, when this book was published. It's a sub-genre of fantasy that has really exploded in the past twelve years.

As with all short story collections, the stories vary in quality. I picked this book up because a LibraryThing friend mentioned that it contains a Robin McKinley short story, one that I hadn't read before. Of all the stories in the book, that was probably the one I enjoyed the most (though she did saddle the line of kings in the story with an unintentionally ridiculous-sounding name). There's also a very nice short piece by Neil Gaiman. Several others were quite good, a few were mediocre, and one urban retelling of Snow White I skipped after reading only a page or so.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.) 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

This One Time with Julia by David Lampson

This One Time with Julia by David Lampson was . . . interesting. Looking back, I'm not sure what I expected it to be, but it took a weird turn toward the end that I wasn't expecting.

Joe's twin brother Alvin has always made Joe's life more interesting. When Alvin left for Tennessee because he fell in love with a girl, Joe found himself in a sort of holding pattern involving playing a lot of poker and eating at McDonalds every day. Suddenly, Alvin returns with a suitcase full of money and a plan to buy a yacht and sail around the world. Then Alvin disappears again, but Julia (the girl Alvin went to Tennessee for) shows up looking for him. Somehow, the end result of all of this is that Joe ends up going back to Tennessee with Julia and getting a job as a pool boy at one of her family's hotels. What happened to Alvin -- did he buy a boat and sail away? Go into hiding? Is he dead?

Joe has some sort of unspecified developmental disorder. The book's cover blurb, "Maybe Joe can't grow up -- but he can love" inevitably brings Forrest Gump to mind ("I may not be a smart man..."). He's caught up in an entire cast full of shady characters, making him pretty much the only likeable character in the book (well, Julia is at least occasionally likeable). I think I expected more of a road-trip/romantic comedy, and got more of a . . . well, I'm not sure what to call this book. I'm also not sure how to recommend it. I did enjoy it in places, though the ending got a bit too weird and surreal for me . . . and I can't really say why without spoilers, so I think I'll leave it at that, and let you draw your own conclusions.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore is one of this spring's most-anticipated YA releases. I expected to be reading it in May, with everyone else . . . but then a friend sent me an advance review copy, courtesy of the publisher. I'll avoid including Bitterblue spoilers in this review, but I can't guarantee that there won't be spoilers for Cashore's earlier books, Graceling and Fire.

Bitterblue's father, King Leck of Monsea, was as cruel and manipulative a man as you could imagine. Graced with the ability to make people believe anything he said, Leck's reign of terror left his entire country scarred and traumatized long after his death. Now, as a young queen, Bitterblue is trying to heal her country . . . but it isn't easy. Even nine years after Leck's death, Bitterblue's administration is haunted by the repercussions of the things Leck did -- and forced other people to do. When Bitterblue leaves the castle one night to travel around the city incognito, she learns that, despite her good intentions, her people are still struggling for survival. Many are illiterate, buildings in some districts are crumbling, and people who try to right the wrongs left over from Leck's rule are being silenced -- permanently. How can Bitterblue get to the bottom of what's happening in her kingdom, without adding to the turmoil caused by her late father's rule?

In Bitterblue, Cashore brings together elements from both Graceling and Fire. If you're eagerly anticipating the release of this book, it would not hurt to reread both of those earlier books, as characters and events from them are referenced frequently. I was glad I had recently reread Graceling, and was wishing I had done the same with Fire -- though I think Bitterblue could probably be enjoyed by readers who have not yet read either. Bitterblue is a fairly hefty tome, coming in at well over 500 pages, but I was enjoying being caught up in the story so much that, if there were pacing problems, I certainly didn't notice them. I find Bitterblue to be a much easier character to relate to than either Katsa or Fire, and the cast of secondary characters, both new and familiar, were well-developed and multifaceted. The setting is less spectacular -- the Seven Kingdoms world has a generally medieval feel, albeit with some industrial-age additions and a thoroughly modern value system -- but the characters and plot more than make up for it. All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Fans of the series will not be disappointed, and new members will be added to their ranks after reading this book.

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

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore was a reread for me. It seems like rereading has become a luxury I rarely indulge in, of late. I reread this book for two reasons -- for one, an online book club that I participate in is reading it as a group. My other reason for rereading . . . well, that will become obvious with my next post.

In Katsa's world, some people are born with a special ability -- a Grace. Gracelings, as they are called, have eyes of two different colors. Katsa's Grace makes her an extremely fierce and dangerous fighter. Her king has made use of Katsa's skills, sending her to threaten and injure people who do not obey his commands. Katsa hates being used, but feels trapped in her position. She has, however, started the Council, an underground movement dedicated to righting the wrongs committed by the kings in the Seven Kingdoms area where she lives. One night, on a rescue mission, Katsa meets Po, a Graceling who is nearly her match in fighting. She doesn't know it yet, but Po is going to have a profound influence on her life in the future, as she leaves her kingdom to venture out on her most dangerous mission yet.

This was a fun read, both now and when I originally read it. On the other hand, I don't feel that I got anything new out of reading it again. Katsa is an interesting, though not particularly sympathetic, character. I certainly recommend this book, particularly to Tamora Pierce fans and those looking for a light fantasy with plenty of action and a little romance along the way.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

It's taken me a few days to ponder what I want to say about The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is just the sort of story that I love -- elements of fantasy, theatre, and art come together in gorgeous collaboration.

Ever since they were children, Celia and Marco have been magically bound to compete in a competition -- a sort of magician's duel between the two of them. The rules are unclear and though each has an older magician serving as a mentor, neither is forthcoming about how to play, or how to win. The setting for the competition is the Cirque des Rêves, a mysterious venue that travels about unpredictably and opens only after dark. With its black and white color scheme, its exotic performers and mysterious tents, the circus does seem like a dreamscape. Celia and Marco manipulate the circus from every angle, crafting tents and attractions with subtle magic and delicate illusions. At first, Celia and Marco don't even know who they are competing against, but eventually they come to recognize each other, and to respect each other . . . and then, inevitably, to love each other. How can they be in love and still compete? What will happen to the circus if one or both of them leaves the competition? And how is the competition to be won, in the end?

This is a rare, beautiful book that left me longing for the chance to visit the Night Circus myself. To sum it up in one word:


(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dumpling Days by Grace Lin

Dumpling Days by Grace Lin is the story of Pacy and her Taiwanese-American family's vacation in Taiwan.Though she looks forward to visiting her grandparents and extended family, Pacy is also a little nervous. Will people look down on her because she can't speak Chinese? And what will she do without her friends back home for a whole month?

This is a cute and fun story. It chronicles what Pacy sees and does -- and eats! -- during her visit to Taiwan. It made me hungry for dim sum!  This book is in the middle of a series, but I've never read any of the other books, and had no trouble following this one.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley is the winner of this year's Printz and Morris awards. It's also not really my thing, to tell the truth.

Lily, Arkansas is the sort of small town that people are always trying to leave. Cullen Whitter has just finished his junior year of high school when his brother Gabriel disappears. Around the same time, there are reports that a rare woodpecker, thought to be extinct, has been sighted in the area. While the town bustles with excitement about the bird, Cullen and his family try to keep searching for Gabriel and hoping for his return.

There's more to the story than that, of course -- Cullen fumbles through a few romantic relationships, hangs out with friends, writes down potential titles for the novel he might write some day, and fantasizes about the popular, muscular guy who was dating his crush turning into a zombie. There's also a seemingly unrelated second plot line that does eventually tie in to the main story. The style reminds me a little of Flannery O'Connor, what with the small-town Southern angst and the weird musings on religion. The writing is good, of course, but there's really nothing here that appeals to me.

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer Smith is an enjoyable light read with a little more depth than most teen romances.

Hadley is four minutes late to the airport, so she misses the flight she didn't want to take in the first place -- the one that will take her to her father's wedding. Ever since her parents split up, the relationship between Hadley and her father has been strained. She's never even met the woman who is about to become her stepmother. While waiting for the next flight, Hadley meets Oliver, a British boy who is also on the way to London for a family gathering. When they board the plane, Hadley and Oliver end up sitting next to each other for the entire flight. By the time they disembark, a spark of romance has kindled -- but both Hadley and Oliver have other things to think about while they are in London. Will they meet again, or will nothing come of their flight together but a pleasant memory?

This is a sweet story, but it also takes an interesting look at how divorce can affect a family. I'm impressed at the way this story comes together, and will be looking for other books by this author in the future.

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

One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson

One Dog and His Boy is Eva Ibbotson's last novel. Ibbotson passed away in the fall of 2010. The sadness of reading this last book is tempered by the knowledge that I have some of her back-list titles still to read, but it is always sad to know that there will be no more new books from a favorite author.

One Dog and His Boy is the story of Hal, a boy who had everything he could want, except for a dog -- and Fleck, a young dog who, despite the hardships he's already faced in life, still believes that the perfect human for him is still out there somewhere. Hal is ecstatic when his parents finally agree to let him have a dog, but what he doesn't realize is that they only mean to rent a dog for a weekend, thinking that Hal will get tired of taking care of it by the time it has to be returned. Fleck has landed at the pet rental place, despite his mixed ancestry, and when Hal and Fleck see each other, they know right away that they belong together. They have a wonderful weekend together, and then Fleck is sent back to the rental shop by Hal's parents. Both Fleck and Hal are heartbroken, and when a chance encounter brings them together again, Hal knows that he will do anything to get his dog back. What follows is a cross-country adventure involving Hal, Fleck, Hal's friend Pippa, and an entire cast of canine characters.

This story is sweet, funny, and whimsical, and will delight dog-lovers of all ages. (Added bonus: no dogs die, which sets it apart from a lot of dog stories!) This book is set for publication next month, so be on the lookout!

(Reviewed from advance review copy obtained from the publisher.)

I have such good friends!

The other day, a package showed up in my mailbox -- a few galleys from a friend who attended ALA Midwinter.  I'll admit it: the exhibit floor, and the many free advance copies of books available there, is one of my favorite parts of any ALA conference.  The programs are useful, the committee work is important, but the exhibits are fun.

At any rate, I wasn't able to go this year, but a little sampling of that fun came to me.  I think I'll tell the rest of this story with pictures.

Here's my kitchen table:
(Usually it's much messier than this.)

Look!  A little pile of galleys!

Yes, there's One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson, and The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, and Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones, and . . . wait a minute, could it be?  Is that . . .

It is!
Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore!

I was, frankly, amazed.  I hear that Bitterblue was the hottest galley at the conference.  I'll be blogging about each of them soon, though I'm going to reread Graceling before I get to Bitterblue, as I want the details of that world to be fresh in my mind as I read.

Thanks, Sherri -- and thank you to to the people at Scholastic, Dial, and HarperCollins for making these books available.

"Communism was just a red herring."

(The quote I'm using for the title of this post is from the movie Clue, which is well worth watching, but actually has little to do with the rest of the post.)

So, now I have read this year's crop of Newbery books -- something that I don't bother to do every year, but this year I was particularly interested.  For one thing, all three of the books appealed to me, so it was easy to pick up and read them; it didn't feel like a chore.  For another thing, as I mentioned once before, two of my friends were on this year's Newbery committee, so I was particularly interested to read the books they helped select.

I find it very interesting that there are certain similarities between all three of these books.  They are all historical fiction, but recent historical fiction -- twentieth century historical fiction.  This is because of another similarity: they all have autobiographical elements.  Each is fiction, of course, but each author sets the book in the locations and circumstances of his or her own childhood.  That brings me to another similarity (and the reason for the quote above): Communism.  In Dead End in Norvelt, one of the things Jack spends his summer on is helping his father dig a bomb shelter -- it's the middle of the Cold War, after all, and Jack's dad certainly isn't the only American who is concerned about the threat of bombs in the hands of the Soviets.  In Inside Out and Back Again, Hà's family flees Vietnam the day before the Communist regime takes over Saigon.  In Breaking Stalin's Nose, Sasha learns about Communism from the inside as he struggles with the arrest of his father and his own impending decision about joining the Young Pioneers.

Of course, every year there are similarities that one can pick out in the books selected.  In 2007, for example, all four of the books that were honored had female heroines.  The job of the Newbery committee is not to choose the most diverse selection of books, but to choose the year's best books.  This year, the books the committee selected as the best all shared certain elements, though they are quite different in style.  I'm just fascinated by those connections.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin was the "dark horse" of this year's Newbery medal and honor books -- and I think it's my favorite of the three.

Sasha Zaichik is the son of a Communist hero, and he wants to be just like his father. The night before Sasha is to join the Young Pioneers (the USSR's youth movement; kind of like a cross between the Boy Scouts and the Hitler Youth), Sasha writes an adoring letter to Stalin, professing his allegiance to the Communist cause. Just hours later, Sasha's father is arrested and taken away. Sasha is bewildered, but sure it is a mistake that will soon be rectified -- after all, Stalin himself once commended Sasha's father's service. As Sasha attends school the next day, his teacher and classmates continue to treat him like the son of a hero, as they have always done . . . until word of his father's arrest gets out. Suddenly, Sasha is an outcast. From his new position in the back of the classroom, he suddenly starts to see all sorts of things that he had been missing before. Will Sasha still be able to join the Young Pioneers? Will he even want to do so?

This is a great, thought-provoking read. I mean to go back and reread it some time in the next few days, in fact. It's deceptively brief -- I finished it in a few hours -- but it's the sort of book that sticks with you for days after you read it. I'm still not sure what a child Sasha's age (one who doesn't have any memory of the Iron Curtain or the Cold War, and who doesn't have a clear understanding, perhaps, of who Stalin is and what he did during his regime) would make of this book, but I'm pretty sure that, like Sasha, they would soon start to see the evils inherent in the system.

I highly recommend this little book!

(Review copy borrowed through my library system.)