Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Princess of Cortova by Diane Stanley

The Princess of Cortova by Diane Stanley is the conclusion to the trilogy which began with The Silver Bowl. This review will contain some unavoidable spoilers for the first two books in the series.

Young King Alaric is in need of a favorable alliance with a neighboring kingdom. Fortunately for him, he is also in possession of a Loving Cup, which can bind two people together for life. Alaric takes the cup, along with Molly and Tobias, who have become two of his closest advisers, to Cortova. He hopes to win the hand of the princess, but when he arrives there, he discovers that he is not the only suitor -- and Cortova's wily king is not opposed to playing his daughter's suitors against each other. Court intrigue abounds. Even the Loving Cup may not be enough to secure the hand of the princess -- and Alaric and his friends may be in greater danger than they could have guessed.

I want to like this series more than I do. I think it's a serviceable, middle-of-the-road juvenile fantasy. There's nothing in the plotting, setting, or characters to elevate it above the herd. This book does a nice job of wrapping up the series, but it didn't leave me feeling particularly pleased or satisfied. Readers who have enjoyed the first two books in the series will want to read this one to see how the story ends, but it's not a book (or a series) that I really see myself recommending often.

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

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel is a YA fantasy novel with a unusual setting: the American Midwest, circa 1935.

Callie and her mother are two of the few remaining townspeople in Slow Run, Kansas. It's the middle of the Dust Bowl, and everyone who can leave is either one their way out or already gone, looking for better opportunities. Callie's mother won't leave, though -- she believes that, if she stays, Callie's father will one day come back to her. When Callie's mother disappears during a dust storm, Callie must strike out on her own, because it may not have been just an ordinary storm that spirited her mother away. Powerful forces are at play, and Callie will soon find herself wrapped up in a world she never dreamed existed.

The setting of this book is its real strength -- I could almost taste the dust in the back of my throat. Moreover, the faeries in this book fit seamlessly into that setting, though it's one that doesn't spring to mind when one thinks of the Unseelie Court. But, immersed in Callie's world of dust storms and jazz clubs and amusement parks, it all works in an historical-urban-fantasy kind of way. But while the setting was great, the plot and characters were less memorable. I didn't find myself deeply invested in Callie's journey. So, while I found this an enjoyable enough read, I'm not sure whether I will continue with the rest of the series.

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

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson is the highly anticipated conclusion to the Fire and Thorns trilogy. I'm only going to do a short blurb and attempt to avoid major spoilers, but I make no guarantees. If you haven't read the series, you might want to read my review of the first book here.

Elisa is on the run -- but she's running toward danger, not away from it. Her enemies have taken the man she loves, and she is determined to get him back. Meanwhile, rebellious nobles among her own court threaten to tear her country apart. Can Elisa save both her love and her kingdom?

I love this series beyond all reason, and it's one I know I will reread in the future. The characters are fantastic, the setting unique, the magic system well-described. If you enjoy young adult fantasy at all, please do yourself a favor and read this series!

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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer is the second book in the Lunar Chronicles, a unique blend of science fiction and fairy tales.

Scarlet's grandmother has disappeared, and nobody but Scarlet seems to care. When a stranger in town, a street fighter named Wolf, seems to have some information that could help Scarlet locate her missing relative, Scarlet is determined to follow the trail, whatever the cost. But can she trust Wolf?

Meanwhile, Cinder is imprisoned in New Beijing -- but not for long. As she escapes from prison, by chance she encounters Captain Thorne, a brash and arrogant pilot. She plans to leave him in the prison, but he claims to have a ship waiting for him nearby, and Cinder knows she needs to make her escape quickly. Escape she does, leaving Kai in a difficult situation as Queen Levana demands Cinder's recapture. If Kai can't deliver, there will be serious repercussions. Meanwhile, Cinder and Thorne (who doesn't really have a clue of what he's gotten himself into) go searching for a woman who might know something about Cinder's past . . . and that's where Cinder's story and Scarlet's begin to intersect.

This is a highly enjoyable series -- I love the concept, which is so different from anything else I've read lately. The characters are also great, though I'm not as much of a fan of Scarlet and Wolf as I was of Cinder and Kai. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series, which comes out in February 2014.

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

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald

I picked up Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald because of my fond childhood memories of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to my expectations.

When their parents die and they are left in the guardianship of a bachelor uncle, sisters Nancy and Plum are sent to board with the penny-pinching Mrs. Monday and her disagreeable niece Marybelle. Like all of the neglected children left in Mrs. Monday's care, Nancy and Plum are underfed, dressed in little more than rags, and treated harshly while Mrs. Monday lavishes toys, good food, and nice clothes on Marybelle. Nancy and Plum survive by imagining a better life for themselves -- and by a tiny bit of help from outsiders like their teacher, the town librarian, and Mrs. Monday's cowed handyman Old Tom. When life at Mrs. Monday's becomes unbearable, Nancy and Plum run away. They soon discover that they cannot make it in the world on their own . . . but will they be able to find the help they need to end up in a better situation?

I was left vaguely dissatisfied with this story. I imagine that, had I read it as a child, I would have loved it. The characters are stock figures: the plucky heroines, the evil villain, the kind teacher, the quiet old handyman. Morals are dropped in with a rather heavy hand, and the story ends in a predictably happy fashion. Children who enjoy this sort of story will eat this book up, but I found it just a bit flat.

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

Boston Jacky by L.A. Meyer

Boston Jacky: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Taking Care of Business by L.A. Meyer is the eleventh book in the Bloody Jack series.

After her recent harrowing adventures in China, England, and Spain, Jacky is headed back to Boston to check in on her interests there -- Boston is, after all, where Faber Shipping Worldwide is officially headquartered, not to mention home to many of Jacky's friends. Jacky soon discovers that all is not well in her adopted hometown: established residents are hostile towards the influx of Irish immigrants, rival "fire companies" have sprung up and are reputedly setting more fires than they are putting out, an old enemy from Jacky's street urchin days is in town, and the Pig & Whistle, Jacky's favorite old haunt, is on the brink of closure. Jacky quickly buys up the Pig, as well as a building to turn into a theatre, but she must be circumspect -- after all, there will be penalties if Jacky appears in Judge Thwackham's courtroom again. Unfortunately, "circumspect" isn't exactly in Jacky's vocabulary, and by the end of the book, Jacky will have been accused of many things, including disturbing the peace, being an unfit mother to her ward Ravi, and . . . witchcraft?!?

I have such mixed feelings about this series at this point. On one hand, this book is a definite improvement over the last book, which I found generally disappointing. It's always nice to catch up with Jacky's old friends, and there's plenty of humor and "Oh, Jacky!" moments to keep the reader entertained. On the other hand, this book doesn't really cover any new ground -- both the setting and the characters are familiar, and Jacky is on land for the bulk of the book, rather than at sea, where she really shines. Also, this book kicks up the raunchiness factor a few notches -- there have always been some slightly naughty bits in Jacky's story up until now, but there's a lot more overt and sometimes distasteful stuff in this one (or maybe I'm just not as forgiving of human nature as Jacky always is). As usual, Jacky makes it through the book with her somewhat tattered virtue still intact, but this is mostly because Jaimy, though on the scene for most of the story, decides to disguise himself and watch from afar, rather than be reunited with his childhood sweetheart. Alas, Jacky and Jaimy's relationship has shifted from a sweet romance to something full of resentment, obligations, and guilt, and at this point I'm not even sure I want to see them get back together.

Dedicated fans of the series, if they have made it this far, will probably enjoy this book. However, I find myself wishing that Meyer had planned out Jacky's adventures with a little more care and a definite ending point. Right now, the series seems to be drifting along, rudderless, and I kind of hope that it comes to shore soon.

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay is a quirky story with surprising depth.

It all started when Binny's father died and the true state of the family finances was revealed. Binny knows that she should feel badly about her father being dead, but she is actually much more upset about the loss of Max, her dog. When Binny's family has to move and Max is left in Granny's care, Great Aunty Violet gives Max away -- and Binny will never, ever forgive her for that. She tells Aunty Violet so, too, in the car after Granny's funeral a few years later. When Aunty Violet dies a few months after that, she leaves the family her little house in a seaside village (and leaves Binny her "particular regards!"). Life in the village is interesting, and is made even more so when the summer comes and Gareth moves in next door. From the start, Binny and Gareth are best enemies. Through all of her adventures crewing on handsome Liam's seal-watching boat, looking out for Aunty Violet's ghost, and having adventures with Gareth, Binny never forgets about Max. He's out there somewhere -- Binny is sure of it. Will she ever find him again?

Hilary McKay's books always hit the right notes for me. The characters are lovely (Binny's little brother James was my favorite in this one), the plot is dazzlingly convoluted, and the dialogue is snappy and humorous. And in this book there is an undercurrent about grief and regrets that is handled with the lightest touch of a skillful writer. Recommended!

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

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein is another emotionally evocative World War II novel from the author of Code Name Verity.

Rose Justice is an eager young pilot from America, serving in the Air Transport Auxiliary. Like many young Americans who have come overseas to fight, Rose is naive and romantic, dreaming of heroic deeds. When her plane is captured by enemy fighters, Rose ends up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she will be pushed to her limits physically, emotionally, and mentally in the struggle to survive each day. In Ravensbrück, Rose discovers the depths of the atrocities committed against these women by the Nazis -- but she also discovers their courage, compassion, and loyalty. Rose is befriended by a few of the Polish prisoners known as the Rabbits, who have been experimented upon in horrific ways by Nazi doctors. Though the experiments are over, the many other inhumanities that the prisoners suffer -- the filth, beatings, starvation, and executions -- continue. How can Rose and her fellow prisoners survive?

From the way the book is structured, the reader knows early on that Rose does survive, as the bulk of the narrative is Rose's diary, written just after her ordeal. That does not make the story any less gripping, especially as the reader gets to know and care about Rose's companions. Rose will survive, but many others will not. And even Rose is left with the trauma and emotional wounds of her imprisonment, afraid to leave her room and face other people, unable to even speak to her mother on the telephone about the things that have happened to her. Can Rose find enough courage to speak out, to be a voice for those who perished?

The events of this book take place not long after those of Code Name Verity, and some characters from that book appear in this one, but it is not necessary to read Code Name Verity before reading Rose Under Fire. That said, I find myself mentally comparing the two books, which is, perhaps, not fair. Rose has her own distinct voice and story, and the events described are just as wrenching and terrible as those in Code Name Verity. However, the plot of Rose Under Fire is much more straightforward than that of its predecessor. I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, or neither. Probably neither -- it's just different. I don't love Rose Under Fire quite as much as Code Name Verity, but I do think it's an excellent book, and if you have the stomach for concentration camp stories, I definitely recommend it.

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

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats is a fascinating, occasionally brutal story set in medieval Wales.

Cecily is sure her life is over. Her uncle has returned from the Crusades, displacing her father who was unfortunately only a second son. Now, instead of inheriting the beautiful estate in England where she has always lived, her father is taking her to Caernarvon, Wales -- a country which Cecily believes is populated entirely by barbarians, where she is sure to never get a marriage proposal. Her only recourse is to sulk and make life miserable for everyone around her -- especially Gwenhwyfar, her new Welsh servant.

Gwenhwyfar despises Cecily and refers to her only as "the Brat" . . . and can you blame her? Gwenhwyfar was once the daughter of a wealthy man, but her father died fighting against the British invaders who now hold Caernarvon in their clenched fists, and grind the remaining Welsh population under their heels. Gwenhwyfar and her brother Gruffydd are now the breadwinners of their family, as their mother is slowly dying in their tiny cottage. Like all of the Welsh in Caernarvon, Gwenhwyfar and Gruffydd suffer from unfair taxation and indignities large and small. And, like all of the Welsh in Caernarvon, they resent it. It doesn't take a brilliant tactical mind to see that trouble is brewing -- even Cecily recognizes some of the injustices that confront her every day. But when the tables are turned, what then?

This is a challenging read. I enjoyed learning about an historical setting and period not often featured in young adult literature, but the injustice and brutality make for a stark read, and the unlikeable main characters don't offer much relief. Both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar grow over the course of the story, but Cecily starts out as such a brat, and Gwenhwyfar brims with such palpable resentment, that it's hard to relate to either, even at the end of the book. However, I'm glad to have read it, and I would recommend it to readers interested in medieval stories and not put off by some true-to-life violence.

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spalding

The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spalding is realistic teen fiction, but on the lighter side. It deals mostly with family dynamics.

When Devan's father dies, she is sent to California to live with Reece Malcolm, the mother she has never even met. Reece Malcolm, a successful author, is so reclusive that Devan can't even find out much about her from the Internet, so she starts keeping a short list of the things she knows about Reece Malcolm. Upon arrival in California, Devan learns many things about Reece -- including that she is willing to give Devan a new wardrobe and get her into a performing arts school so Devan can follow her dream of a career in musical theatre. But no matter how much Devan learns about her mother, she can't help thinking that Reece didn't want her in the first place, and probably doesn't want her now. Will Devan and Reece manage to become a real family, or is sixteen years of separation too great a barrier to overcome?  Also cooking, Sondheim, and kissing.

This debut novel has a lot of good points -- the voice is spot on, the characters are well-rounded, and the pacing is good. The plot is so similar to One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones that I almost felt at times that I had read it before, but the style, characters, and secondary plot lines help differentiate it from that book. I think young teens will really enjoy this story, as will all readers who enjoy YA lit of this variety.

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

Mini-Review Catch Up

Sorry for the blog silence!  I blame it on a combination of factors: vacation, writer's block, and too much to do, too little time.  Let me try to kick it back into gear with some mini-reviews:

I reread Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan basically on a whim, because it had been a long time since I last read it. It's a lovely story about two children who anxiously await the arrival of their father's mail-order bride: will she like them? will she stay? I recommend this award-winner -- and it's short enough to read in one sitting.

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is a Newbery Honor book that I don't think I read as a child, but I would have enjoyed it then. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it now! A diverse group of friends in a busy urban neighborhood create their own secret world of imagination in a vacant lot. I loved the interactions between the kids -- some parts of the plot felt a little dated, but the way the characters felt and related to each other is still fresh.
I also picked up the sequel, The Gypsy Game. Though not quite as excellent as the original, I still found it worth reading. It lacked the imaginative elements that made the first novel stand out, but the characters were still well written.

 Dog Friday by Hilary McKay is one of this author's earlier efforts, and it doesn't quite have the depth of her more recent works. After being bitten by a dog, Robin discovers that he is afraid of dogs -- even the pathetic creature known as Old Blanket who belongs to the eccentric family who move in next door. When he finds an even more pitiable specimen of canine life on the beach one day, however, he begins to rediscover his love for dogs -- but will he be able to keep this dog, or does it have an owner out there looking for it? I'm a sucker for both dog stories and McKay's writing, even her early writing, so this was a winner in my book. And the scene where Beany serves dinner to the bed and breakfast clients is the funniest thing I've read in some time!

 I picked up another Newbery Honor that I didn't read as a child: Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg. Elizabeth is a lonely only child until she meets Jennifer, who claims to be a witch. This is a great story of a quirky friendship, and I really enjoyed it.

That's all for now -- I have several more books waiting to be reviewed, but I think I have more to say about most of them that what I've posted here.

(Reviewed from copies borrowed through my library system.)