Friday, May 31, 2013

Path of Beasts by Lian Tanner

I listened to the audio version of Path of Beasts by Lian Tanner, third book in the Keepers series.

Goldie and Toadspit have returned to Jewel, but there they find a city at war -- the Fugleman, the Blessed Guardians, and a troop of mercenaries menace the city. Not only are Goldie and Toadspit merely two children facing down an army, but the Museum of Thieves is also being threatened, and if it is destroyed, plague and war will completely engulf Jewel. Their only hope may be the mysterious Beast Road, from which nobody has returned in living memory.

I found this a strong conclusion to an enjoyable series. In particular, I liked the character development of several secondary characters, such as the captain of the mercenaries, and Pounce. As with the first two books, the audiobook narration was excellent and contributed to my enjoyment of the story. Readers who have enjoyed the first two books in this series will certainly not want to miss this one.

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

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I've been a big fan of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead since before it won the 2010 Newbery Medal, so I recently decided to do a reread via audiobook.

It's 1979, and Miranda is a savvy Manhattan city-dweller: she knows to ignore the rough boys who hang out at the garage down the street, not to talk to the crazy homeless man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox, and to have her key out and ready when she gets to her apartment door. Her main preoccupations are with school, friends, and helping her mother prep for an upcoming appearance on the game show The $20,000 Pyramid. But then, all of a sudden, things start to change. After an inexplicable encounter with another kid on the street, Miranda's best friend Sal stops talking to her -- even though his getting punched wasn't her fault. Even more mysteriously, strange notes begin arriving for Miranda. What do they mean? Who are they from? What should Miranda do about them?

Every time I read this book, I am impressed at the tight plotting and skillful writing. Listening to the audio version was no exception, and Cynthia Holloway's narration perfectly captured Miranda's smart, youthful voice. This is a book that gives its readers credit for intelligence without seeming at all pretentious, and while I may have its flaws, I certainly can't pick them out. The characters are nuanced and grow throughout the course of the story, the pacing is steady, the story is neither too long nor too short, and there are bonus references to A Wrinkle in Time. What's not to love?

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Green Man by Michael Bedard

The Green Man by Michael Bedard is an eerie, contemplative fantasy novel for young adults.

Teenage Ophelia, known as O, is ambivalent about being sent to help her aunt while her father is traveling and researching for a book. O's aunt Emily is a poet, a recluse, and a bit eccentric. She owns The Green Man, a ramshackle used bookstore. O arrives to find her aunt in poor health and haunted, perhaps literally, by events from her past. As O attempts to clean up the bookstore and apartment, and to watch over her aunt's faltering health and haphazard diet, she discovers dark secrets that may pose a danger to both her aunt and herself.

This is certainly a quiet book -- it moves at a glacial pace, and though there are exciting events at the end, they are wrapped, as it were, in trailing streamers of poetry and symbolism. While I enjoyed this well enough, it's neither the sort of book that I can see myself rereading, nor the sort that will spring to my mind when I'm looking for fantasy to recommend. I know that there are quiet, poetic readers out there who will cherish this book, but they are a small and unassuming minority, I am afraid.

(Reviewed from a copy sent to me by the publisher, via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)

The Vicious Deep by Zoraida Córdova

The Vicious Deep by Zoraida Córdova is the first book in a series featuring a teen merman.

Tristan never knew he was part merman -- until her almost died in a freak tidal wave while lifeguarding at Coney Island. Against all odds, Tristan survives the wave, and is found by his friends three days later. His only memories of the time he was lost must be hallucinations, since they feature a malevolent, sharp-toothed mermaid, right? When his legs shift into a tail a few days later, he begins to realize that his memories aren't fictional after all. Tristan is the grandson of the aging Sea King, who is about to declare who his heir will be. Tristan, son of the king's favorite daughter, is in the running, despite the fact that he knows nothing of the undersea kingdom or its denizens -- and doesn't even know if he wants to be king. In spite of his reservations, Tristan finds himself in a race to recover the three missing pieces of the Sea King's trident, because if he fails, his beloved Coney Island and all of New York could be in terrible danger from the very sea witch he encountered during the tsunami.

This story has its good points: plenty of action, lots of teenage-boy humor, and a new take on mermaids (mermen? or, as Tristan would have it, merdudes?). In tone, it reminds me of the Percy Jackson series, though pitched more for high school than middle school. It's not really my thing, but I think it will appeal to a lot of teens who like fantasy and adventure.  Be warned, though, that the ending of the story leaves a lot of loose ends.

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell

The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell is a Gothic mystery for children.

Eleven-year-old Clara has always lived in the old Glendoveer house -- her mother is housekeeper and caretaker for the elderly Mrs. Glendoveer, the only surviving member of the Glendoveer family. Clara has always been considered "delicate" and is rarely allowed to leave the house, but she knows that the people in the neighborhood are a little afraid of the Glendoveer house and its inhabitants. Clara knows she has nothing to fear from the house, or from sweet old Mrs. Glendoveer, but she is rather frightened of the five exotic birds in the aviary -- especially when one of them begins to shriek at her in what sounds like Latin. She tells Mrs. Glendoveer about the speaking bird, and Mrs. Glendoveer encourages her to listen and learn more about the birds. Shortly after that conversation, however, Mrs. Glendoveer dies. Can Clara solve the mystery of the aviary and the tragic history of the Glendoveer family on her own?

For me, this was one of those books that I liked but didn't love, which makes it difficult to review. The characters were interesting enough, though I felt the pacing lagged in places. The overall atmosphere was well done, and I feel like there aren't very many Gothic books for children out there, so I hope this one finds its audience.
(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Enola Holmes series, books 2-4 by Nancy Springer

Over the past few weeks, I have listened to the audiobook versions of The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets, and The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan by Nancy Springer, books 2-4 in the Enola Holmes mystery series. Since I have already reviewed the first book, I'll just briefly summarize: Enola, still free of her brothers' constricting guardianship, establishes herself quite comfortably in London and solves several cases, including a rescuing a kidnapped girl, foiling an attempt to force a bride into an arranged marriage, and solving the mysterious disappearance of none other than Doctor Watson. All the while, she manages to evade Sherlock and Mycroft's attempts to curtail her freedom, though she does have a few close shaves.

I am having a lot of fun listening to this series. Katherine Kellgren, of course, does a wonderful job with the narration. The historical details are still well-researched and well-integrated into the plot, and Enola continues to solve mysteries in a manner generally suited to her age and ability, though of course there's always going to be some suspension of disbelief necessary for this sort of story. By the end of the third book, she has gained a sort of grudging respect from Sherlock, which explains why he is no longer trying quite so hard to locate her -- a good thing, because I think that true Holmes fans might quibble at their hero's apparent inability to track Enola down. My only other issue with the series -- possibly more noticeable because I am listening, rather than reading, is the oft-repeated refrain of Enola's mother's words: "Enola, you will do very well on your own." I feel like it's been hammered in enough! Of course, Enola's mother falls just above the worst of the villains on the likability scale, as far as characters in this series go, so maybe that's also part of the problem.

All in all, these are excellent audiobooks, and I certainly recommend them. I will be sure to listen to the last two books in the series next time I have the opportunity for prolonged listening.

(Reviewed from audiobooks borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tilly's Moonlight Garden by Julia Green

Tilly's Moonlight Garden by Julia Green is a lovely, haunting little story.

Tilly's family has just moved to a big, old-fashioned house, and her mother is bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy. While her father, an author, works constantly on his new book, Tilly is left to explore the house and gardens on her own. One evening, she follows a fox through a gate and finds a mysterious and beautiful wild garden. As Tilly returns to the wild garden over the following days and weeks, she meets Helen, a girl of Tilly's age. But there's something mysterious about Helen, too -- where does she live? Why does Tilly only ever see her in the garden?

The gentle tone of this story reminds me of one of my childhood favorites: Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards, which also features a lonely little girl and a hidden garden. Tilly's story also includes the slightest touch of the supernatural in the character of Helen. The writing is lyrical and just a bit British. I'd recommend this to readers of all ages who enjoy well-written juvenile fiction.

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

Friday, May 10, 2013

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Go ahead -- judge The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani by its cover, because this is a book that really wanted to be a manga series. Not that there's anything wrong with wanting to be a manga series -- but I'll get into the issues I had with this book after a quick summary:

Every four years, two children are stolen from the isolated little town of Gavaldon by a mysterious Schoolmaster. One is taken to the School for Good, the other to the School for Evil . . . and there they become the stuff that fairy tales are made of. Parents lock their children away -- the unusually bad children do surprising, uncharacteristic good works, the preternaturally good ones go around making messes and pinching their siblings. None of them want to be taken away . . . except for Sophie. Sophie can hardly wait. She's always known that, deep inside, she was a princess. Surely the Schoolmaster will see that as well, and take Sophie to the School for Good where she can meet her perfect Prince Charming. But has she been good enough? In an attempt to up her standing on the Nice List, Sophie befriends outsider Agatha, who wears a lot of black and lives next to a graveyard. Agatha doesn't necessarily believe in the schools, and she certainly doesn't want to go there -- but even her mother believes that Agatha, if she were chosen, would land squarely in the School for Evil. So, imagine the two girls' surprise when Agatha finds herself chosen for the School for Good, and Sophie ends up in the School for Evil. Agatha's main goal is to get herself and Sophie out of their schools and back to Gavaldon before something dreadful befalls them -- you see, she quickly learns what happens to students who are not successful. Sophie, on the other hand, is determined to make her way to the School for Good (she even has her Prince Charming picked out) and nothing, not friendship or magic or a host of fakey-nice Mean Girls at the School for Good, will stand in her way. To top it off, what Sophie and Agatha don't know is that there are forces at work at the Schools that neither of them understand . . . and they are about to get swept into something much larger than just two girls spirited off to school. . . .

So, that sounds promising, right? Well, the first bit of the book is good enough . . . but once the girls get to the school, it goes downhill. One of the main problems is the length, or to be precise, the amount of wasted space in the main portion of the book, where Agatha tries to convince Sophie to go home, and Sophie hatches another scheme to get into the School for Good. Over and over again. There's an entire school year to fill, and while some of the girls' adventures are exciting, they also felt repetitive to me. To top it off, the ending of the book is massively confusing. Then, the writing is not as great as one might expect from the impressive author bio and the number of big-name book blurbers this title attracted. The story has definite visual/cinematic elements, but there were times when I could almost feel the author's frustration at not being able to just express visually what was going through his mind. And this led to action sequences (particularly at the end of the book) that were extremely jumpy and confusing. As manga, it would almost definitely have been more successful; as a film (I hear it has already been optioned) I think it will be spectacular. As a book, it just didn't do it for me. Much as it pains me to say such a thing, my recommendation on this one is to skip the book and just wait for the movie.

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

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Poison by Bridget Zinn

Poison by Bridget Zinn is a delightful stand-alone young adult fantasy.

Potions master Kyra tried to kill her best friend, and now she's on the run, not only because she is being pursued, but because she failed -- and unless she finds a way to succeed, the entire kingdom faces darkness and destruction. You see, Kyra's best friend is Princess Ariana, and something has gone terribly wrong with her. Now, of course, the princess is in hiding -- and Kyra's best hope for finding her is an enchanted . . . pig. As Kyra and Rosie the piglet journey, they meet Fred, a lighthearted wanderer (who, nevertheless, may be more than what he seems). Unfortunately, until her task is completed, Kyra can't afford to make any friends. And if she completes her task, she fully expects to be executed.  Along the way, there are scrapes involving witches, carnivals, and frilly underwear, though, so don't expect anything too grim!

Reviewers and blurb-writers are fond of using words like "romp" and "rollicking" to describe this type of story. I think I'll just call it a fun, whimsical fantasy with surprising hidden depths, not to mention numerous plot twists. Kyra's not quite an unreliable narrator, but she certainly doesn't give out information right and left! Sadly, the author of this book passed away shortly after completing the manuscript, so there will be no more adventures for Kyra, Rosie, and Fred -- but I am just glad to have had the chance to read this charming story, and I highly recommend it.

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bath Tangle and Cotillion by Georgette Heyer

Bath Tangle and Cotillion by Georgette Heyer were enjoyable airplane reads on my recent trip.

In Bath Tangle, strong-willed Serena Carlow is shocked when her late father's will assigns her ex-fiance Ivo Barrasford as her trustee, putting him in charge of not only her fortune, but her marriage prospects as well. Serena initially plans to remain with her young mother-in-law Fanny on her father's former estate, but after a few months of watching her cousin (who inherited the estate) make various "improvements," the two women decide to temporarily relocate to Bath. There, Serena meets a former suitor whose prospects have improved since their early courtship. Will Barrasford give his approval to the match? Does Serena really want him to? And will sweet, shy Fanny find someone to love? When Barrasford's own engagement to a shallow slip of a girl is announced, the tangle is complete!

Cotillion is the story of Kitty Charing, ward to the irascible, miserly Matthew Penicuik. When Penicuik declares that he will leave his considerable fortune to Kitty on the condition that she marries one of his great-nephews, neither Kitty nor the nephews in question are happy about the situation. In fact, Jack, the presumed favorite for Kitty's hand (handsome, but something of a rake), doesn't even show up for Penicuik's announcement. Kitty is furious about the whole situation. With the help of genial, dandified Freddy (another of the nephews), she hatches a plan: she and Freddy will pretend to be engaged, whereupon Kitty will visit Freddy's family in London. She'll have a chance to see something of the world, and maybe she will even manage to make Jack just a little bit jealous. . . .

I liked Bath Tangle and loved Cotillion -- Bath Tangle is a little more predictable, while Cotillion takes certain conventions of the genre and turns them on their heads. I'd hate to spoil the ending for anyone, so I'll stop short of saying anything else about it. But, for anyone unfamiliar with Heyer's writing, I'd say Cotillion would be an excellent place to start -- and for those who have already read and enjoyed some Heyer, don't miss either of these!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased electronic copies.)

Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George

Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George is the sequel to Tuesdays at the Castle, which I read in late 2011 and really enjoyed.

It's Wednesday at Castle Glower, and Celie doesn't expect any changes -- after all, Tuesday is the day when the castle is apt to add, remove, or rearrange rooms. But when she finds a staircase leading to a tower that wasn't there before, she has to investigate. And when she finds a fiery orange egg, she gets more excitement and adventure than she bargained for . . . especially when the egg begins to hatch! Suddenly, Celie has a huge secret -- one Castle Glower doesn't want her to share with her parents or the other castle residents. Her brother, Royal Wizard Bran, is let in on the secret -- but he has his own problems to deal with when a dour wizard from the College of Wizardry arrives and seems intent upon discovering all of Castle Glower's secrets.

This book is nearly as charming and fun as its predecessor. Readers new to the series should, of course, start with Tuesdays at the Castle, and all readers should be warned that Wednesdays in the Tower does end on a major cliffhanger.

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Museum of Thieves and City of Lies by Lian Tanner

I listened to audio versions of Museum of Thieves and City of Lies by Lian Tanner, narrated by Claudia Black. The series was recommended to me by a family who uses our library often, and I'm glad I took their recommendation!

In Museum of Thieves, we meet twelve-year-old Goldie Roth. She's not a bad child, but she chafes at the restrictions placed on her. You see, in the City of Jewel, children are kept safe by being literally attached to an adult at all times -- either a parent, or one of the Blessed Guardians. The practice stems from the early days of the city, when there were dangers like slave traders, stagnant and disease-ridden pools of water, and feral dogs and cats all over the city. Now, hundereds of years after those dangers have been mostly mitigated, the children are still kept safe at the expense of any sort of personal freedom. Goldie looks forward to Separation Day, when she will at last be able to go without the silver chains she has worn all her life, and the constant companionship of the Blessed Guardians. But when Goldie's Separation Day is postponed due to a shocking tragedy, Goldie runs away. She manages to evade the Blessed Guardians and finds sanctuary in the Museum of Dunt, a mysterious little building that houses artifacts related to the history of the city, dating back to before the time the city was called Jewel. And, as Goldie will learn, the museum houses much more than just artifacts . . .

This story has mystery and adventure and friendship, fantastical creatures and nefarious plots, music and magic. The writing is good and the audiobook narration is also excellent. I definitely recommend it to fans of juvenile fantasy! In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went on to listen to the second book in the series:

In City of Lies, Goldie and her friends enjoy more freedom then they did in the past book, but they soon learn that freedom comes at a price -- for it may be that a few of the ancient dangers of the city have returned. When one of Goldie's friends is kidnapped, Goldie follows along in hopes of staging a rescue. She soon finds herself in the unfamiliar city of Spoke, where the Festival of Lies is just about to get started and nothing is quite what it seems. Goldie doesn't know who to trust, or even how to find her missing friends, but she knows she must try. Along the way, she meets an interesting assortment of characters and learns some startling secrets, all while having the sort of heart-pounding adventures that she encountered in the first book of the series. Will Goldie, using the skills she learned in the Museum of Thieves, be able to rescue her friend and find a way back to Jewel?

This book was just as good as the first. I was particularly impressed that the author, having created a fascinating and fully realized setting for the first book, moved away from it and came up with just as complete and interesting a setting for the second. I'm looking forward to listening to the conclusion of the series some time soon.

(Reviewed from audiobooks borrowed through my library system.)