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.)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

There's a lot to recommend Splendors & Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz: characters, atmosphere, setting, style . . . but be ready for a book that does not rush, that you sink into and enjoy slowly.

Clara is a daughter of privilege, the only living child of her wealthy and doting parents. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are ragged urchins, apprentices to Grisini, a street performer. Grisini has an almost magical skill with puppets, and a dark past that hints of real black magic. When Grisini is hired to perform a puppet show at Clara's birthday party, little do the three children know that their lives are about to become inexplicably intertwined.

I very much enjoyed this book, with its Dickensian setting and characters, the subtle touches of magic, the hints of pathos behind each child's story. It's an oddly compelling and somewhat demanding story, and from the reviews I've read, it's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book. I loved it.

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

Saturday, October 6, 2012

In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz

In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz features Jack and Jill, two young adventurers on a quest that may cost them their very lives. As in his previous book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, Gidwitz does not spare his young readers the darker side of fairy tales. He moves away from Grimm's tales in this book, focusing on stories from a variety of sources, but there is still plenty of violence, gore, and danger as Jack and Jill's quest takes them from the tops of the clouds to the depths of the earth.

This is a companion work to A Tale Dark and Grimm, so although the two books are similar in style, they share no major characters, and you do not have to read one in order to understand or enjoy the other. Both books feature enough action and humor to entice reluctant readers of any gender.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher, via a giveaway by MotherReader.)

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

 I seem to have review-writer's block about The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater . . . at least in part because it's so hard to summarize it without giving anything away. So, I'll just say that it's a story about ghosts and psychics and privileged private-school boys and a dead Welsh king, and leave the summary at that.

As for how I liked it . . . well, I liked it quite a lot, though not quite as much as I liked The Scorpio Races. There was a brooding, atmospheric quality in The Scorpio Races that this book doesn't quite achieve -- but then, this book is quite different in tone, so it doesn't need to be The Scorpio Races all over again. The characters are great, particularly the Raven Boys themselves, and I look forward to seeing what happens with them in future volumes.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher, via a giveaway by MotherReader.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Playing catch-up again

 So, the only way I can possibly manage to catch up on my backlog of books to review is to give some of them a very brief treatment, then (hopefully soon) write longer reviews of the books I have more to say about.  Here are the mini-reviews:

The Spy Princess by Sherwood Smith is another story of a young woman trying to find her place in a country on the brink of revolution. She has loyalties to both sides, and her attempts to help are not always successful -- in fact, they are often detrimental. The action is fairly good, but the characterization could be stronger. Also, I'd probably have enjoyed this more if I hadn't recently read Palace of Stone.

The Far West by Patricia C. Wrede probably deserves more than a mini-review, since I really did enjoy it, but it is the third in the series and hard to describe without spoilers. Suffice it to say that it is definitely worth reading if you enjoyed the first two books. If you're unfamiliar with them, the first book in the series is Thirteenth Child, and it's an alternate history of the Westward Expansion, but with magic. The Far West wraps things up pretty well, so I think it may be the conclusion of the series.

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose is also set on the western frontier, but without magic. It's a verse novel about May, a young girl who dreams of getting her teaching certificate, despite the fact that she finds reading extremely difficult. However, her parents need her to help in another way -- they take her out of school and send her to live as companion to a woman who has recently come west to marry a homesteader and is homesick. When disaster strikes, May learns that she is more capable than anyone might have supposed. There's a lot going on in this book, though the plot itself leans heavily on scenes from some of the Little House on the Prairie books. Readers who can't get enough of those stories should definitely read this one.

(Reviewed from copies borrowed through my library system.)