Friday, July 26, 2013

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis won me over with a catchy title. It failed to deliver the level of humor that I had hoped for, though I'm sure it will find plenty of other readers. For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like.

Timmy Failure is head of the best detective agency in the city, probably the state, possibly the nation -- Total Failure, Inc. His efforts toward greatness are hindered by his business partner (a 1,500-pound polar bear named Total, hence the business name), the occasional assistance of a classmate, the good-intentioned interference of his mother, and the evil schemes of one Corrina Corrina, head of a rival agency. Of course, the reader is quickly clued in: Timmy is clueless, his polar bear is imaginary, his classmate is able to easily solve puzzles that leave Timmy perplexed, his mother is a longsuffering single mom who just wants to see her son pass fifth grade, and Corrina is basically entirely oblivious to Timmy.

I can see how this scenario could have been funny, but for me it netted only a weary chuckle or two. I found Timmy's clueless egotism tiresome, and the whole book felt to me like it was trying too hard to be clever, to win over the Diary of a Wimpy Kid audience with its similar, highly-illustrated style. I don't see this series being as successful as Wimpy Kid -- Timmy is nowhere near as relatable as Greg -- but it will definitely get recommended as a read-alike.

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

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman

I listened to the audiobook of Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman -- a surefire winner in my book, as I always enjoy Karen Cushman's writing, and always enjoy Katherine Kellgren's audiobook narration.

Will Sparrow's father sold him to an innkeeper in return for ale. When the innkeeper catches Will stealing a meat pie, he threatens to send Will to London to be a chimney sweep's boy. Preferring the dangers of the open road to the dangers and drudgery of cleaning chimneys, Will runs away. After a few days of running and hiding, Will falls in with the itinerant crowd of performers, artisans, and hucksters who travel from one fair to the next. It's a colorful ensemble, and though Will prides himself on being a liar and a thief, he is more than once taken in by some sly character. Eventually, he reluctantly takes a place as an errand boy for the owner of a booth featuring "prodigies and oddities," including a three-legged chicken, a mermaid in a jar, a bad-tempered dwarf, and a fur-faced girl a few years younger than Will. As Will gets to know the members of the small company, he learns to look beyond appearances and see things, and people, as they truly are. And, despite his oft-repeated claim that he cares for no one but himself, he finds that there are other people in the world for whom he cares, and who care for him.

Cushman walks a fine line with Will's character: he is indeed a bit of a liar and a thief, as well as conceited, somewhat ignorant, and occasionally naive -- but for all that, he remains likeable and sympathetic. The secondary characters are likewise complex and rounded; the reader gets the sense that each one features as the star of their own story, though some of those stories overlap onto Will's only briefly. At times, I suspected that the narrative was leading to a saccharine and unrealistic ending, but Cushman is too talented an author to fall into that trap. As for the audiobook production, it was excellent -- as in other projects, Kellgren researched the songs that are included in the text, and her performance of them was authentic to both the period and the characters. Highly recommended!

(Reviewed from an audiobook given to me by a friend.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is a pretty but straightforward juvenile fantasy.

When Lilian is bitten by a snake in the forest, the wild cats she has befriended turn her into a kitten to save her life. When Lilian wakes up and realizes what has happened, she immediately starts searching for a way to become human again -- and not a dying human. The solution she eventually finds seems ideal, but actions have consequences, sometimes ones that are not easily foreseen, and Lilian's choice turns out to be one she can't live with. Once again, she sets out on a quest to change her destiny.

This is a nicely written book, and the illustrations by Charles Vess are simply gorgeous. I'm not sure why it didn't knock my socks off. Perhaps, on another day, it would have done so. Or maybe if I were more of a cat person . . . at any rate, I enjoyed this book well enough, but it's not one I see myself revisiting. I will, however, certainly recommend it to young fantasy fans who visit my library, as well as any readers here who find fantasy and cats, plus beautiful full-color illustrations, an irresistible combination.

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

Aunt Dimity and the Duke by Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity and the Duke by Nancy Atherton is the second book in the Aunt Dimity series of cozy mysteries.

Emma, forty-something and newly single, travels to England to tour noteworthy gardens -- but a chance encounter with a set of elderly twins in a hedge maze sends her on a different course, designing a chapel garden for the Duke of Penford. The duke's estate is populated by a cast of quirky characters, including the charismatic duke himself, a variety of eccentric servants, a bad-tempered fashion model and distant relative to the duke along with her agent, and a widowed restoration specialist and his young children. When the fashion model is involved in an accident that nearly results in her death, Emma is left wondering if the duke might be hiding some terrible secret. Who can she trust?

I read the first Aunt Dimity book a couple years ago, and while I found it pleasant enough, I didn't like it enough to seek out the rest of the series. But when the rest of the series practically fell in my lap (passed along from a friend to a relative to me) I picked it up, looking for a pleasant light read on a weekend vacation. And that's precisely what this book is. The mystery is gentle even for the cozy genre, and the focus is much more on the relationships between characters and the slightest touch of paranormal activity than on murder or attempted murder. I wouldn't really recommend this to hardcore murder mystery fans, but for readers looking for a comforting read with gardens and aristocracy, plus a hint of mystery and a touch of romance, this is just the thing. And, since it does not share major characters with the first Aunt Dimity book, it can be read as a stand-alone if one so desires.

(Reviewed from a secondhand copy passed along by a friend.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

From the title of The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, I was expecting a Pinocchio retelling. It's not that, but there are slight echoes of Pinocchio within the story.

Oscar is a magician's servant -- not an apprentice, even, just a hired hand who spends his days tending the gardens, grinding up spell ingredients, and sweeping the floor. His master Caleb is charming and enigmatic; Caleb's apprentice Wolf is a reprehensible bully. But mostly Oscar doesn't mind -- he spends his days in his basement workroom or in the surrounding forest, or with his cats. He understands plants and cats much better than humans. Then one day, while Caleb is out of town, Wolf leaves Oscar in charge of the shop -- a task for which Oscar is ill prepared. Even worse, some unfortunate circumstance befalls Wolf, and Oscar finds himself tending the shop for days on end, waiting for Caleb's return. Callie, a young apprentice Healer, gives Oscar some help, but when Oscar makes an appalling discovery, his task becomes much more daunting than watching the shop for a few days. Something is terribly wrong in the world, and all in Oscar's life is not as it seems. . . .

I adored Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs, and went into The Real Boy with high expectations . . . and The Real Boy lived up to those expectations well. As in Breadcrumbs, Ursu pays homage to fairy tales and classic literature, but she does so with a light touch, and in a way that enhances the story rather than distracting the reader. Oscar and Callie are wonderful characters, Caleb is more complex than he seems at first, and in fact the entire plot is less straightforward than one might expect. There's magic, and a history of magic in Oscar's world that both Oscar and the reader initially accept . . . but that history may not, in fact, be the truth, and so there are many surprising twists and turns as Oscar learns more about the world and about his own history. This is one of the best juvenile fantasies I have read this year, and I think it's one we might hear more about when award season rolls around again.

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

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu was one of my favorite books of 2011. I loved it so much that I carried my copy of it with me to ALA when I heard the author would be there to do a signing. And, since it was in my bag and I had an hour or so to spare, I found an out-of-the-way spot in the convention center and started rereading.

Hazel is having a difficult year. Her father has left their family, and now there is not enough money for Hazel to go to the private school where her creativity was valued and nurtured. Now, Hazel is in a different school, where there are many more rules and lines and tests and busywork and bullies, and all of a sudden she is not special and creative, she is a problem student, troubled and difficult. But at least Hazel has Jack, her best friend and next-door neighbor. Then, in the space of one day, Hazel's friendship with Jack changes. Suddenly he is mean to her, acting as if she doesn't exist, or worse, as if he sees her as just a pest and a bother. Everyone tells Hazel that these things happen as people grow up, but she can't accept it. Not in regards to her friendship with Jack. And then Jack disappears completely. One of his friends admits to Hazel that he saw Jack go into the forest with a mysterious woman in white, in a sleigh pulled by snow-white wolves -- a story completely at odds with Jack's parents' vague report that Jack went to visit a relative. When Hazel ventures into the woods herself, she finds that she is on a quest in a place that is somehow not just a patch of woods near the suburbs. The forest is populated by fairy tale creatures, woodsmen and wolves and all sorts of magic. And to the north there is a witch in a palace of ice -- but she only takes those who go with her willingly. Jack would never do that, Hazel argues . . . but how well does she know this new, cold-hearted Jack? Can she save him? Does Jack even want to be saved?

I'm a sucker for fairy tale retellings, and this one combines so many lovely stories, both the familiar and the less-familiar, that I couldn't help but adore it. The basic framework is The Snow Queen, of course, but there are lots of other elements of both Grimm and Andersen mixed in, and Hazel frequently references her own favorite books, so there are glimmers of Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter and Narnia and even a nod to When You Reach Me, among many others. Hazel is a character who really touched my heart; her troubles at school mirrored some of my own experience, and I wish I could have read this book when I was Hazel's age. The writing is lovely, the pacing and plotting is excellent, and all in all, I think I can count this as one of my new favorites, a book I will return to again and again.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud is the first book in an exciting new paranormal adventure series.
About fifty years before our story begins, the citizens of the UK began experiencing what they now refer to as "the Problem." Ghosts started cropping up all over -- ghosts with the power to kill with a touch. Children are more sensitive to the presence of this paranormal threat, so in response to the Problem, underage crews of psychic investigators have sprung up. Using technical equipment and plenty of salt and iron, these agencies work to neutralize spirits before they can harm living citizens. Lucy Carlyle was part of one such team in a small town until one job went horribly wrong. Now, Lucy is in London. She's applied to all of the big agencies, but without references she can't find a place. Then she spies an advertisement for Lockwood & Company, a small firm that is currently hiring. Unlike most agencies, Lockwood & Co. consists of only a few underage investigators, no adult supervision. Lockwood, the charismatic head of the agency, takes Lucy on, and together with George, the slovenly third agent, they start working on the few cases that come their way. When a botched job results in a house fire and Lockwood and Co. is held liable for property damages, prospects look grim. Their only hope is to take a job at Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. The owner of the hall will wire funds to their account as soon as they arrive at the hall -- which is a good thing, because no other psychic investigators have ever survived a night at Combe Carey. Can Lucy, George, and Lockwood deal with the Red Room and the Screaming Staircase, or are they doomed to join the house's paranormal host themselves?

Generally, ghost stories are Not My Thing, but I'm such a big fan of the Bartimaeus Trilogy that I thought I'd give Stroud a chance to wow me (even though I found Heroes of the Valley a disappointing slog). I'm glad I did. Lockwood & Company feels like a return to Stroud's strengths: an alternate-history London with interesting backstory and world-building, strong, interesting, not always likable characters, plenty of action and adventure, and the promise of more in books to come. This series is pitched to a slightly younger demographic than his Bartimaeus books, but I'd say teen and adult readers can enjoy this just as much as the upper reaches of the middle-grade audience for whom the story is intended. The ghosts are scary enough to make the book gripping, but not so much that I was kept awake at night (and as I indicated, I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to horror books and usually avoid them), and there's a bit of mystery that some readers will be able to solve long before the final reveal. I'm looking forward to the continuation of this series -- it's one I'll definitely keep an eye on, and definitely recommend.

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

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is the second book in the charming Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall. This is another reread via audiobook for me -- I've been doing a lot of those lately.

The Penderwick sisters and their father are home on Gardam street when Aunt Claire drops a bombshell in the form of a letter from the girls' mother. Before her death, Elizabeth Penderwick knew that her husband would be lonely, but would probably not venture into dating again on his own, so she and Claire formulated a plan. Now, several years after Elizabeth's death, Claire is putting the plan in motion. Naturally, the girls have mixed feelings about this -- particularly Rosalind who, as Oldest Available Penderwick, is used to mothering her younger sisters and having her own way in the kitchen. So, the Penderwicks hatch a plan of their own, to "save" their father by setting him up on a series of dreadful blind dates! And of course that's not all that's going on in the busy family: Jane and Skye switch homework assignments with hilarious and disastrous results, Batty becomes obsessed with the "Bug Man," a mysterious stranger who may be lurking around Gardam Street, Rosalind finds her feelings for a boy confused once again, and all four sisters find a charming confidante in their new neighbor, a single mother named Iantha.

This second book in the series is just as charming and gentle as the first, and the audiobook narration is, once again, stellar. I recommend the whole series, for though this book could be read on its own, it does occasionally reference characters and events from the previous volume.

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

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Mysterious Howling and The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood

I read the first two books in the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, The Mysterious Howling and The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood, back when they were first released. However, when I learned that Katherine Kellgren had narrated the audio versions, I thought a re-read was in order! It's interesting that so much of what Kellgren narrates matches my reading taste.

When Miss Penelope Lumley, fresh out of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, accepts a position as governess to the wards of Lord Frederick Ashton, little does she know that the children were literally raised by wolves!  But Penelope is never shy about facing a challenge.  She soon learns, however, that the children's origins are not the only mystery within Ashton Place . . .

These are delightful books, and the audiobook versions are highly enjoyable.

(The Mysterious Howling reviewed from an audiobook courtesy of Audiofile's Sync YA Listening program; The Hidden Gallery reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko

Al Capone Does my Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko are the first two books in a juvenile historical fiction series with a unique setting.

It's 1935, and Moose Flanagan is not excited about moving to Alcatraz Island. Who would be, right? But Moose is not a convict -- he's a 12-year-old boy. His father has taken a job as electrician and prison guard on Alcatraz, which will pay well enough to enable Moose's sister Natalie to attend a special school in San Francisco. Natalie's special needs have always dominated family life for the Flanagans, and Moose's parents hope that the Esther P. Marinoff school will enable Natalie to live a normal life. Moose just hopes that, once Natalie is away at school, life will finally settle into a normal pattern. He loves his sister, but he also resents the special attention she gets -- and feels guilty for that resentment. Life on Alcatraz sure is an adjustment, though. There are few kids of Moose's age, and even fewer who are interested in his favorite sport, baseball. And, of course, there's a cell block full of America's most dangerous criminals right around the corner. When Piper, the warden's spoiled, mischievous daughter, hatches a plan to profit from Alcatraz's notoriety, Moose must decide whether he will go along or not. And when it looks like Natalie will not be accepted into the Esther P. Marinoff after all, Moose hatches a plan of his own . . .

In the second book in the series, the story of life on Alcatraz continues. Moose faces the consequences of the decisions he made in the first book, and struggles to keep everyone around him happy. There's a lot of drama as friendships, family problems, and budding preteen romance threaten to disrupt Moose's peaceful life -- but an even bigger disruption is brewing in the cellhouse, and the consequences could be far worse than hurt feelings.

Both of these books were great reads. The first book has a tighter focus, dealing more with Moose and Natalie's sibling relationship, while the second book focuses more on the different personalities of the kids living on Alcatraz. Choldenko does an excellent job of character development, though there were a few plot points that stretch credulity. Choldenko also does an excellent job of portraying a character with autism, in the days before that diagnosis even existed. I definitely look forward to reading the third book in the series.

(Al Capone Does My Shirts reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system; Al Capone Shines My Shoes reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher, lo these many moons ago.)

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud is the first book in one of my favorite fantasy trilogies, the Bartimaeus series.

Nathaniel is a magician's apprentice, treated with contempt by his master who is himself only a minor magician. Nathaniel, however, has ambition -- not to mention years of hoarded resentment towards his master and other magicians who have slighted and humiliated him. In secret, Nathaniel summons a powerful djinni named Bartimaeus, planning to use the djinni to accomplish his secret plans -- but then things start to go horribly wrong . . .

This is not only a reread for me, but a re-listen as well. The original book is brilliant, thanks in part to Bartimaeus's snarky footnotes. The first time I listened to this audiobook, I wondered how that would come through, but narrator Simon Jones does an excellent job of presenting the footnotes as conversational asides. I'll be re-listening to the sequels soon. If you are a fantasy reader and haven't read this series, I recommend it, and the audiobook versions of the books are impressive and well-done.

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Come a Stranger and A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt

Come a Stranger and A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt are companions to Homecoming and Dicey's Song, which I read last month. They focus on secondary characters from those first two books, and can be read as standalone works, though I feel they work best when the reader has the background story of the Tillermans in mind.

In Come a Stranger, we meet Wilhemina Smiths, a spirited young girl -- or, as some people might say, T-rou-ble. It's the end of fifth grade, and Mina has just gotten a scholarship to ballet camp up in New England. Dance is all Mina wants to do, and she's good at it, too -- never mind that all of her ballet lessons have been in a makeshift garage studio in little Crisfield, Maryland. That first summer at camp is everything Mina dreamed it would be . . . even though she can't help but notice that she is the only dancer of color at the camp. She spends the next year waiting for camp to roll around again -- but when it does, she finds that nothing ever stays exactly the same. Her own body has changed, and dancing is no longer effortless for her. One of her three best dance camp friends elected not to return, leaving Mina the odd girl out, alone in a single dorm room. Certain comments and situations rub her the wrong way -- is that new, or did she just not notice them the summer before? And when the camp director calls her in to tell her that it just isn't working out, Mina quietly acquiesces. Since when has Mina Smiths, T-rou-ble, ever quietly acquiesced to anything? In thinking over the events of that summer, Mina must learn how to stand up for herself again, learn what it means to be a minority and how to keep herself from being shamed and silenced. And she's about to meet Tamer Shipp, a man who learned that lesson a long time ago . . .

In A Solitary Blue, we meet Jeff Greene, who is just a little boy when his mother leaves. Melody, Jeff's mother, is going off to fight for the rights of animals and orphans and the environment, to make the world a better place. Jeff is left alone with his father, a man he thinks of as The Professor, who doesn't know the first thing about raising a son. Jeff is convinced that he must do everything he can to keep the household running smoothly in order not to lose the only parent he has left -- and, for a few years, he does. Then, one summer, Melody sends word that she wants Jeff to come visit her. She is living with her grandmother in a big old house in Charleston, South Carolina. That summer, Jeff and Melody explore the city together. Melody is learning to play the guitar, and she teaches Jeff what she knows. Gambo, the family matriarch, tells Jeff stories of the family's glory days. Jeff's world, already turned upside down by his mother's abandonment years ago, seems to have righted itself. And even though Melody changes Jeff's plane ticket for a bus ticket, pockets the difference, and then sends him home to Baltimore without any money for food on the trip, Jeff is entirely devoted to Melody. What does it matter if she never answers his letters? He will write to her once a week -- it will be his way of exercising chivalry. Jeff is determined to be Melody's white knight. He saves up money to buy a secondhand guitar and practices in order to be able to play for her. And the following summer he goes back to Charleston, dreaming of another idyllic summer. But when Melody and her boyfriend meet Jeff at the airport, it's clear that the summer will not be shaping up to Jeff's dreams. Melody has found a knight, and it's not Jeff. Her boyfriend whisks her out of town for a week, and then for another week. In the meantime, Jeff is stuck in the house with two batty great-aunts and Gambo, who has suffered a stroke and now treats Jeff as an inconvenience rather than a guest of honor. To get out of the house, Jeff travels to the outskirts of town. He buys a rowboat and does some waterfront exploring, discovering an island inhabited by only the local wildlife -- most notably, a single, ungainly blue heron. When Melody returns, only to tell Jeff that she is going away again the following day, it is as if she has abandoned him once again. Jeff returns to Baltimore in despair. Mired in depression, he lets his grades slide and starts skipping school -- and eventually, even The Professor is bound to notice something. What Jeff may have forgotten, though, is that if there's one person in the world who can understand the effects of Melody's abandonment, that person would be his father.

These two books have a lot of similarities in structure -- a great summer experience, followed by a disappointing summer experience, and well-written characters who must grow and change in response to those summer experiences. Believe it or not, despite reading both of these books multiple times, only with this reading did I notice the similarity of structure between the two! Part of the reason for this, I think, is because I've never spent a lot of time analyzing the books in a literary sense. Both books also have the ability to pull me into their world, to make me fully empathize with the main characters. For instance, Melody is one of the most loathsome parents in juvenile/young adult literature, but though the reader can see how she is manipulating Jeff all along, the reader can also understand why Jeff is so entirely devoted to her -- and I think it's a testament to the power and skill of Voigt's writing that she is able to walk that fine line.

In short, these are two old favorites, and this is neither the first time nor the last that I will be rereading them.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison

The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison is high fantasy about two very different princesses from neighboring kingdoms.

King Haikor is a mercurial ruler whose violent fits of temper can mean that his favorite courtier one day may be executed at his order the next. Growing up in such an environment, sixteen-year-old Ailsbet has learned to adapt, to obey her father's whims without expressing her own anger which so often simmers below the surface of her personality. Ailsbet has always been different from the rest of her people -- without the neweyr, or women's magic, she cannot take part in many traditional activities, or even converse with other women when the topic turns to magic -- and because of that distance, many of her father's court see her as cold and conceited. Music is her only refuge. But when her father starts discussing plans to arrange a marriage for her, will her music be enough?

To the north of Haikor's kingdom lies another land, one with a more benevolent king on the throne. He also has a sixteen-year-old daughter, Marlissa. Since her mother's death, Issa has taken the queen's place as custodian of the neweyr, working alongside the women of her country to strengthen the land. She loves the land and its people -- but as princess, she is also facing the prospect of marriage, and when a surprising offer takes her away from the country she loves, she must learn to adapt -- even though she has lost her heart to a man who is not her betrothed.

This story has its good points, including an interesting binary magic system and issues related to what happens when a person of one gender is born with the opposite gender's magic. I'll admit, however, that I thought this idea was not explored to its fullest potential. The characters are well-developed, though Marlissa's romance is of the hello, I hate you, I love you, we are doomed sort, without a lot of development in between those stages. There are plenty of plot twists, though I never found the book as a whole as gripping as I thought I should, if that makes sense. Also, neither the title nor the original cover are particularly suited to the content of the story -- the "rose throne" is only mentioned in passing, and the lacy pink cover design may lead readers to expect something with more froth and less grit than the story contained therein. I didn't exactly dislike this book, but it's not one I see myself rereading, recommending, or even remembering a few months from now.

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