Friday, December 19, 2014

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a delightfully macabre Victorian tale.

The seven students at St. Ethelreda's School for Young Ladies have little in common, but one thing they all agree on is that they don't care much for their headmistress Constance Plackett, and even less for her oily brother Aldous Golding. So, when both headmistress and brother drop dead over Sunday dinner, the girls mostly feel a mild regret that they will be split up -- for, despite their differences, they all get along quite well together. And then, they hit upon an idea: what if they were to bury the corpses in the back garden and just . . . carry on? Of course, this plan doesn't take into account Mr. Golding's surprise birthday party, or the visit from Mrs. Plackett's solicitor, or the Strawberry Social. Not to mention that it's hardly coincidence that both Mrs. Plackett and Mr. Golding dropped dead at the same meal. Poison was almost certainly involved, but who administered it? Was it Disgraceful Mary Jane Marshall, seeing a way to escape the strictures of boarding school life? Smooth Kitty Heaton, who proves to be such a competent organizer when Mrs. Plackett is out of the way? Dour Elinor Siever, with her unhealthy fascination with death? Or was it someone from outside the school? Who could it be -- and why?

This book is a delightful romp. I had so much fun reading it. I particularly enjoyed how the author differentiated the girls by using their adjectives (i.e. Disgraceful Mary Jane, not just Mary Jane) throughout -- that was by no means the sum of their characters, but it proved a useful method for keeping all of them straight in my head. The mystery was clever and by no means obvious, and the little romances were charming side-notes to the story. If this sounds like your sort of thing, you should give it a try!

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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell is the story of a wild orphan transplanted from Zimbabwe to a London boarding school.

Wilhelmina Silver has always been allowed to run a little bit wild. She lives on the farm where her father is the overseer, and she has her best friend Simon, her horse and her monkey, fruit ripe for the picking, and the freedom to go wherever she wants and spend her days however she chooses. When disaster strikes and Will is shipped off to boarding school, she might as well have been sent to another planet. Grief-stricken and claustrophobic, Will decides to run away . . . but London is not like Africa. Where can she go to find the wide-open spaces she craves?

This book reminded me strongly of Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan, as the main characters in both books had the same strong affection for Africa. All in all, though, I'd say this book is not quite as strong. The characterization is good, but the pacing is problematic -- so much time is spent setting up Will's idyllic existence at the beginning of the book, that the reader (at least, any reader who has read the jacket copy) is left waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, and for Will to be sent away to London. In comparison with the leisurely beginning, the London parts of the story feel a bit rushed, and the ending wraps up a little too neatly. I did enjoy reading this story despite its issues, but I'm not sure who I would recommend it to.

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My True Love Gave to Me, edited by Stephanie Perkins

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories is a holiday short story collection edited by Stephanie Perkins, featuring stories by some of the hottest names in YA right now: Holly Black, Gayle Foreman, Laini Taylor, Rainbow Rowell, and more. Though, naturally, some stories are better than others, the overall quality of this anthology is high.

My personal favorites were "It's a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown" by Stephanie Perkins, "Welcome to Christmas, CA" by Kiersten White, "The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer" by Laini Taylor, and of course "Midnights" by Rainbow Rowell. "Polaris is Where You'll Find Me" by Jenny Han struck me as the weakest of the lot, and I didn't particularly care for "Krampuslauf" by Holly Black, though that's more a matter of taste than of quality (Holly Black is a hit-or-miss author for me). Also, because I used to live in Oklahoma, I spent more time while reading "Star of Bethlehem" trying to pinpoint the geography than I did actually enjoying the story. I'm not convinced that Ally Carter has ever been to Oklahoma. My main issue with the book as a whole was that it led off with the story that should have been saved for the grand finale. That's obviously a minor issue, because on the whole I found this collection an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a light, seasonal story or twelve.

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier is the first book in a darkly atmospheric fantasy series.

Not really all that long ago, canny gifts were valued in Alban. That was before Keldec took the throne and set up his network of Enforcers and Enthrallers, to make sure that all magic users were either in service to the king . . . or dead. Neryn has seen the devastation wrought by the king's men first-hand, when they burned her village and destroyed her grandmother's mind. She knows she must keep her own gifts hidden as she and her father travel from town to town, always on the run. Neryn thought her life couldn't get much worse, but when her father wagers her in a game of chance to a mysterious cloaked man, she feels as if the bottom has fallen out of her meager existence. The stranger offers her a choice: she may go her own way, or accept his protection on her journey. Choosing to travel alone, Neryn makes her way north toward Shadowfell, where rumor has it that a band of rebels has a stronghold and people with canny gifts are accepted and trained. On her way, Neryn learns that her own gift is something out of the ordinary, even for a magic user -- and the king's forces are hot on her heels because of it. If Neryn doesn't want to end up as a weapon for King Keldec, she must make it to Shadowfell. To do so, she'll face constant danger, harsh weather, and a series of unexpected encounters as she proves herself and hones her magical gift.

This book is excellent in all sorts of ways. The setting is vivid in all of its harsh, rocky dampness. The plot is strong, connected to the history of the land and the events that took place before the book begins. The characters are few but fully realized, and I've got to say that Flint is one of those slow-smoldering book crushes that you don't see coming until wham you're head over heels. (Probably doesn't hurt that I found myself basically picturing him as a younger Aragorn.) All in all, this is a book that readers of YA fantasy should definitely take a closer look at.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Wild Born by Brandon Mull

Wild Born by Brandon Mull is the first book in the Spirit Animals series, another interactive, multi-platform juvenile series from Scholastic.

Across the world of Erdas, four children have summoned spirit animals -- and not just any spirit animals, but four of the Great Beasts. In an upcoming conflict between good and evil, these four youngsters and their animals will be key players.

This initial book sets the stage for the rest of the series, and also shows the four children facing their first quest and battle. I think this series will probably be as popular as similar series. I read (or rather, listened to) this one in order to stay current with popular kids' books, but I will probably not continue with the series.

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman

The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman is, as you might have guessed, the story of an unlikely friendship set in an orphanage.

The mice at the Cherry Street Children's Home have an unusual fixation: they are devoted art collectors. The little mouse-sized pictures with the conveniently sticky backs that Matron keeps on her desk are irresistible, and Art Thief is a prestigious position in the mouse community. Mary Mouse is the first female to hold the post after her husband, the previous Art Thief, fell victim to an unfortunate on-the-job accident involving the resident feline. When Mary seems about to suffer a similar fate, she is rescued by one of the girls at the Home -- but in the process, she is seen, not just by that one girl, but by other humans, who schedule a visit from the dreaded Exterminator. The Cherry Street mice will have to move . . . and Mary, the one who brought this disaster down upon them, will be left behind. It's basically a death sentence for Mary, except that the orphans are involved in their own drama, one that Mary will find herself involved in because of Caro, her sympathetic human rescuer.

This book takes a lot of inspiration from Stuart Little, and reads like a mid-century children's classic. It's just the sort of book I would have liked when I was eight or nine, and I hope it will find an audience of similarly enthusiastic young readers today. The characters (both mouse and orphan) are delightful, and there's just the right amount of action and adventure to keep the plot moving along. It does start with a rather traumatic mouse death (Mary's husband's encounter with the cat), but readers who can get past that will find a lot to like in this story.

I don't usually comment on book covers, but I feel this one does a particularly poor job of making the book attractive to young readers. The girl on the front looks no older than six (Caro is supposed to be ten), and the cream background and the cream nightgown make the whole thing look washed out. I expect better from an artist of David McPhail's caliber.

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Last Song by Eva Wiseman

The Last Song by Eva Wiseman is a story of intrigue and escape during the early days of the Spanish Inquisition.

Isabel attends Mass regularly and finds great consolation in prayer, so it comes as a shock when she discovers that her family is of Jewish heritage, and her parents secretly practice the old faith. In Toledo, Spain in 1491, secrets like that can have disastrous consequences. In spite of the danger, Isabel feels an irresistible curiosity about her heritage. She secretly befriends Yonah, the son of a Jewish silversmith, who takes her to places where she can learn covertly about her parents' faith. Isabel and Yonah's friendship might even become something more -- but Isaebel is betrothed to Luis, a cruel and loutish boy, but the son of an Old Christian family. Isabel's parents hope that this connection will keep Isabel safe in Spain's volatile political atmosphere, but Isabel feels that the price may be too high. Can she find another way to escape persecution, one that doesn't involve marrying Luis?

The real strength of this novel is the setting. Wiseman obviously did her research, and Isabel's world is described in vivid detail. Unfortunately, the characters, dialogue, and plot are less powerful. I found Isabel annoying, Too Stupid To Live at times -- she makes impulsive decisions that put her life, her friends' lives, and her family's lives in danger on a whim. None of the secondary characters were particularly nuanced or rounded, and the dialogue often seemed a bit stilted. It's not that this is a bad book -- it's just not a great one. Readers with a particular interest in Jewish history, the Spanish Inquisition, or historical fiction in general may want to take a look, but others will probably be okay to skip this one.

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher, via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata is a compelling story of family dynamics.

Twelve-year-old Jaden was adopted from Romania four years ago, but he still doesn't feel like he belongs in his American family. His disconnectedness leads to acting out: setting fires, hoarding food, running until he falls down. Now, Jaden's adoptive parents are going to Kazakhstan to adopt again, a baby this time. Jaden feels like he is being replaced -- like his adoption was such a failure that his parents want to start over with a different kid. In Kazakhstan, Jaden and his parents discover that they baby they had arranged to adopt was given to another family, so now they must choose another child on the spur of the moment from the ones available at the baby orphanage. Jaden feels an unusual attachment to Dimash, a nonverbal toddler who is almost too old to be at the baby orphanage, but his parents are set on adopting a baby. Jaden also finds that he feels a connection to Sam, the acerbic driver who chauffeurs the family around during their time in Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that the trip halfway around the world was all about adopting a new baby, it becomes a time of personal growth for Jaden, too. But what will become of Dimash if Jaden's family does not adopt him?

I thought this was an interesting, well-crafted read. Jaden's a fairly unsympathetic protagonist (an unusual thing in children's literature), but Kadohata's skillful character development brings Jaden closer to the reader as the story moves along. As an adult reader, I was also caught up in Jaden's parents' story as seen through Jaden's eyes. I also thought Kadohata did a great job with an unusual setting (how many books can you think of that are set in Kazakhstan?). This is one of the strongest children's books I have read this year.

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon is an easy chapter book about an imaginative youngest child.

Six-year-old Dory gets no respect from older siblings Luke and Violet, but that's all right by her, because she has a rich imagination, populated with friends and villains who seem just as real to her as the people in her family. She has fabulous adventures with these imaginary creatures, but when she sacrifices her sister's favorite doll to one of them, will she find that she has finally gone too far?

This is a quirky little story that may appeal to readers familiar with other trouble-making youngsters who populate the world of early chapter books. I found Dory a little irritating, myself . . . but then again, I am an older sibling!

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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Wild Rover No More by L.A. Meyer

Wild Rover No More by L.A. Meyer is the long-awaited conclusion of the Bloody Jack series.

Our girl Jacky has been in some tight spots before, there's no denying . . . but this time, her luck may have finally run out. Her long-time enemy Harry Flashby has cooked up a scheme to frame her for traitorous activity against the American government. While her friends (including Jaimy) work to clear her name, Jacky goes into hiding. She first takes a position as a governess, then joins a circus (to those who know Jacky, the latter is actually less surprising than the former), but she can't escape the long arm of the law forever. Jailed, scheduled for a trial before Judge Thwackham once again, and looking at the all-too-certain prospect of death by hanging . . . is this the end for Jacky Faber?

This is a satisfying conclusion to the series. My only complaints are that Jacky doesn't spend much time at sea in this book (the seafaring books are always the ones that show Jacky at her best) and there's not enough of Higgins. But other than that, this is a nice last book. Most of Jacky's friends from earlier books appear, or are at least name-checked, and the story still feels fresh despite being set in New England just like the previous book. I am sad to say goodbye to Jacky, and sadder still because author L.A. Meyer passed away earlier this year -- but I know that I'll pick up Bloody Jack again, one of these days, and I'll go adventuring with Jacky anew. Oh, Jacky, you wild thing . . .

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo by Cece Bell is a graphic memoir for middle-grade readers, or anyone who enjoys a good memoir in an unusual format.

A bout with meningitis at the age of four left Cece with severe hearing loss. This makes navigating school a little rough, especially since she has to wear the Phonic Ear, a large hearing aid that straps onto her chest and communicates with a microphone worn by her teachers. Cece soon learns that this device gives her special powers, practically superpowers: she can hear what the teacher is saying in the classroom, out in the hallway, in the staff room . . . even in the bathroom! Will she use her powers for good? Can they help her get the attention of the boy she has a crush on?

This is an impressive memoir: it does a great job of showing the reader what it was like for Cece to grow up with a hearing impairment, it touches on universal childhood concerns like making friends, dealing with siblings, and having a first crush, and it's entertaining. I feel like I learned a lot from Cece's experiences, and I will certainly recommend it to both kids and adults.

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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Death Sworn by Leah Cypess is a young adult fantasy of swords and sorcerers.

Ileni's people and the Assassins have one thing in common: they both long for the destruction of the corrupt Empire. By an old agreement, Ileni's people send a sorcerer to the Assassins' Caves to train those with aptitude in magic. Ileni is the first woman to be sent to the caves -- and also the first to carry such a heavy secret. Ileni's magic is fading, day by day. She barely has enough power for the simplest spells. Without magic, she will not survive long in the caves -- but before she dies, she has an important mission: she must find out who is killing the sorcerers sent to the caves. Two sorcerers have died by foul play in the year before Ileni's arrival -- will she be the third?

Most of the way through this book, I was thinking it was a fairly good YA fantasy: strong female protagonist, bad-boy love interest, a little fighting, a little magic, a bit of a mystery -- but the twist at the end elevated the book from just okay to quite good. It's not perfect by any means (the romantic subplot is relatively weak, and the pacing lags in the middle), but now that I know how it ends, I am eager to see where the author goes next with this story. Recommended to fans of young adult fantasy.

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dreamhunter and Dreamquake by Elizabeth Knox

Dreamhunter and Dreamquake by Elizabeth Knox are two volumes, but one complete story, so I am reviewing them together.

Cousins Laura and Rose are about to take the test that will determine if they are dreamhunters -- individuals who can enter The Place and capture dreams to bring home and share with others in the glittering Dream Palaces of the city. Both girls have a famous dreamhunter parent, but while Rose confidently believes that she will be able to cross into The Place, Laura is less certain that she will be able to . . . or that she even wants to. Laura's father, the famous Tziga Hume, was the first-ever dreamhunter, first to enter The Place when it mysteriously appeared twenty years ago, but now Tziga seems haunted, and Laura wonders why. When Tziga disappears after his most recent foray into The Place, Laura is left on her own to figure out her role. There are many mysteries that Laura must unravel: what happened to her father? What had he been doing in The Place that caused him so much mental anguish? What is The Place, and why did it so mysteriously appear?

I am not doing this duet of books justice, because I'd hate to give something away. This is a wonderful, thoughtful fantasy set at the turn of the 20th century in an alternate New Zealand. The setting is fully realized, the characters are complex and morally conflicted in realistic ways, and the plot is intricate and thought-provoking. This isn't a story to race through, but it's what I think of as "chewy" -- you'll want to take time to savor it, to speculate on what's coming up and to work through surprising new twists. I've never read anything quite like this, though I'd recommend it to fans of Jonathan Stroud and Philip Pullman. One word of caution: be sure to have the second book on hand when you start the first, because the first book ends abruptly (frustratingly so, to readers who picked it up when it first came out, I'd imagine) and the second book picks up just where the first leaves off.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Color Song by Victoria Strauss

Color Song by Victoria Strauss is the sequel to Passion Blue, which I reviewed earlier this month. This review does contain a few necessary spoilers for Passion Blue.

Giulia thought her future was bound up within the artists' studio at the Convent of St. Marta, studying under her Maestra, Sister Humilita. But when Humilita becomes seriously ill, Giulia's future is in jeopardy. Once again Giulia finds herself fleeing from the convent, this time carrying the precious recipe for Passion Blue, Sister Humilita's signature paint color. Giulia's plan is to travel to Venice and find a position with Humilita's old friend, Master Painter Ferraldi. But if she is to succeed, she will have to disguise herself as a boy. Nobody must know that Ferraldi's new apprentice Girolamo is actually runaway novice Giulia, because there are still people in Padua who would do anything to get their hands on the recipe for Passion Blue . . . and not all of them are peaceful nuns.

I was greatly impressed with Passion Blue, especially the way it changed up some of the common tropes of the young adult novel. Color Song is, in some ways, a little more traditional: a headstrong girl goes on an adventure and finds her place in the world (and even romance along the way). It's still an enjoyable read, well-researched and engaging, and I would recommend it to readers who enjoyed its predecessor.

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Trolls by Polly Horvath

The Trolls by Polly Horvath is a warm and funny family tale with surprising depth and hints of melancholy.

Aunt Sally is the sister that their dad never talks about, but when Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee Anderson's parents need a babysitter for a week and the normal one is sick, the children find themselves in the charge of Aunt Sally, the oddest relative they have ever encountered. Aunt Sally lets the children dig through her luggage and play with their food, and she tells them the wildest stories of growing up on magical, mysterious Vancouver Island. There's the one about Great-Uncle Louis, who came for two weeks and stayed for six years, and the one about Aunt Hattie's mysterious romance -- and, of course, the one about the trolls. That story about the trolls, in fact, might explain a lot about their family history. But trolls aren't real . . . are they?

Whenever I read a book by Polly Horvath, I know to expect a bit of weirdness and whimsy, and this book is no exception. It's a slim volume, but Horvath expertly weaves Aunt Sally's family stories through the framework of a week in the lives of the Anderson children. Aunt Sally is just the sort of crazy aunt that I would like to be, someday -- but I think I'd rather not encounter the trolls.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is an emotionally evocative story of survival in the face of cruelty and hardship.

It's the last thing 15-year-old Lina expects: in the middle of the night, the secret police pound on the door of her family's house. Lina, her mother, and her brother Jonas are taken from their comfortable home in Lithuania and forced onto a train that will take them to Siberia. It will be many years before Lina is able to return to her home. Worse, her father is also taken, but in a different direction, to a different work camp. Lina and her family struggle to stay together, to find a way to contact Lina's father, and to survive the terrible conditions as they are moved from one train car to another, one work camp to another. Lina doesn't even know what crime she is supposed to have committed. She is often cold, often hungry, often tired, but despite all of this, there is still hope and love. There is still life.

This is an excellent book about an oft-overlooked part of history -- while everybody knows about the atrocities committed by Hitler, fewer realize that Stalin was, if anything, worse. Lina's story is presented plainly, but the bare humanity of the situation does not need fancy writing to add impact. I found this book gripping, reading the whole thing in a day, almost in one sitting.

I feel a personal connection to this story. Though my great-grandparents left Lithuania in the 1920's, they may have left behind friends and relatives who witnessed or endured the sort of hardship described in this book, as the author's note quotes an estimate that the Baltic states lost more than a third of their population under Stalin's regime. That's an appalling statistic, and though Lina's story is fiction, it's well-researched and accurate, based on the experiences of real people. That makes this book a difficult read, at times, but also a powerful one. Highly recommended.

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver is a juvenile fantasy with a Victorian feel.

One night, shortly after the death of her beloved father, Liesl (a Cinderella-like young girl confined to an attic bedroom by a cruel stepmother) is visited by Po, a ghost. Drawn to her sad sweetness and her artistic talent, Po and his ghostly animal companion Bundle are soon caught up in a plan to help Liesl escape the attic and take the ashes of her dead father to the country home where Liesl's mother is buried. Po is not the only one who has been drawn to Leisl's sweetness: Will, an apothecary's apprentice, has noticed her face at the attic window and dreamed of meeting her. When their paths cross on the way out of the city, the three children (two corporeal, one ghostly) find themselves caught up in a larger adventure than they ever expected.

I thought the writing was strong in this story, but the plot was weak. There are too many coincidences, and too many people who behave in unbelievable ways in order to ensure they are in the right place at the right time, plot-wise (for instance, there is an old woman on a train who apparently decides that Liesl is a menace to society because Liesl appears to be talking to herself, and so the old woman manages to convince a police officer to accompany her in a cross-country chase to catch the girl. It's necessary to the plot that the police officer be at the denouement, but it doesn't make sense to me that he would allow himself to be caught up in the chase for a child who has not broken any laws). I can see how some children might enjoy this story (it has courageous children and evil grown-ups and lots of adventure and danger), but mature fantasy readers will probably find that there are just too many plot holes to fall into.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Jim Dale, who has just the right sort of voice for this type of story. While I don't much care for his interpretation of the Harry Potter books, I thought he did well by this one.

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst

Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst is a compelling fantasy set in a desert kingdom.

Liyana spent years training to be the vessel of her clan's goddess. The years of training culminate with the ritual dance that will call the goddess Bayla to walk among her people. Liyana dances . . . but Bayla does not come. Is Liyana an unfit vessel, or has Bayla turned her back on her people? Either way, Liyana no longer has a place in her clan. Left behind in the desert, Liyana prepares to struggle for survival, knowing that she will probably die soon. But then Korbyn appears, looking for her. Korbyn is the trickster god, summoned into his own clan's vessel, and he explains to Liyana that Bayla and several other gods have been trapped somehow, summoned into false vessels, unable to come to their people. Liyana and Korbyn set out across the desert to find the other vessels whose gods have been taken, and then to find out what has entrapped the missing deities.

This book has a wonderful setting and fantastic characters -- Liyana's no-nonsense attitude works so beautifully with Korbyn's lighthearted demeanor, and the other vessels are also distinct and interesting. I thought the plotting was mostly strong, though the romantic subplot, especially the way it worked out, was less than satisfying to me. That minor criticism aside, I still completely enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to readers who like YA fantasy, particularly fans of Tamora Pierce and Rae Carson.

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff is the story of Albie, a struggling fifth-grader, coming to terms with his family's expectations for him.

Albie's never going to be the smartest kid in his class -- he struggles with stuff that seems to come easily to some of his peers, and feels like he's only almost doing a good-enough job. But several new developments in his life, including an artsy new nanny and a math club at school, help Albie find his own way of absolutely standing out.

This is a sweet and touching story and will be appreciated by readers who enjoy realistic fiction about kids overcoming their circumstances.

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Passion Blue by Victoria Strauss

Passion Blue by Victoria Strauss is a story of finding one's place, set in the vibrant world of the Italian Renaissance.

All her life, Giulia has dreamed of being an artist -- but she knows that's impossible for a girl in fifteenth-century Italy. The next best thing, she thinks, would be to marry a supportive husband who would let her pursue her passion as a hobby, at least. But when her father dies and his jealous wife packs Giulia off to a convent, she believes her dreams are doomed to be crushed, unless she can find a way to escape. Everything changes, however, when she meets Sister Humilita and the other nuns in her workshop -- a true painter's workshop, known across Italy for their artwork, particularly because of Passion Blue, a paint color invented and carefully guarded by Humilita. As an apprentice in Humilita's workshop, Giulia glimpses the life that could be hers if she stays: a life dedicated to art and painting, one she could never have outside of the convent. But just when she is beginning to feel settled at the convent, she meets Ormanno, a charming young artist who could offer Giulia a means of escape, if she is willing to betray Sister Humilita and her other new friends at the convent. Giulia thought she would have to choose between love and art -- with Ormanno, is it possible for her to have both?

I found this a delightful and well-researched look into Renaissance Italy. The main plot line is definitely YA, and some readers may be frustrated at 17-year-old Giulia's bad choices, but I thought they were realistically depicted and believable in the larger framework of the story. I thought the depiction of life at the convent was particularly well-done, showing as it did the many different types of women who chose (or were forced into) that lifestyle. All in all, a satisfying and enjoyable read.

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr is the story of a family and a community coping with difficult circumstances.

Samara's mother is in rehab following a DUI, and her pastor father is struggling to maintain a veneer of confidence and normalcy in front of his parishioners. The family finances are strained to the limits, and Sam is facing a school year at the local public school, instead of the private school she has attended until now. She's also dealing with a crisis of faith, as she struggles to come to her own terms with God after realizing that her parents are not infallible. There's a lot on her plate, but when Jody, a 13-year-old girl from the church's youth group, disappears one Sunday afternoon from the quiet small-town shopping district, Sam's life grows exponentially more complicated. Suddenly, her father is stepping into the media spotlight as he comforts the shocked and grieving family and helps coordinate the search efforts -- all the while, spending a suspiciously large amount of time with the church's pretty, young, female youth pastor. Sam finds herself spending time with Jody's older brother, a boy she's always harbored a small crush on -- but can she trust him? After all, in cases of an abduction like this, it's often a close friend or family member who turns out to be the perpetrator...

I liked this book well enough, but it has a few quirks that bothered me. For one thing, the book is split up by days, but the first day is actually the day before the abduction, and it's not a particularly significant day in Sam's life, either. The difference between the numbering of the days/chapters and the number of days Jody had been missing kept pulling me out of the story. Also, I was listening to the audiobook (read by the author), and I had trouble telling, sometimes, whether Sam said certain things, or just thought them. In the book, I'm sure formatting would make this clear, but it's an aspect of Zarr's writing that does not transfer well to the audio format. So, if you are interested in this story, I'd recommend picking up the book, not the audio.

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a memoir in verse from a gifted author.

In spare and lovely free verse poems, Woodson describes her early life. Born in Ohio, she moved with her mother and siblings to South Carolina at a young age, then to New York a few years later. Woodson describes how she learned to tell stories, while also exploring the era in which she grew up and the experiences -- some happy, some sad -- that she shared with her close-knit family.

This is a National Book Award finalist, and a book that's been getting a lot of Newbery buzz. I liked it a lot, and can certainly see its distinguished qualities. I tend to want memoirs to be more like novels (real life has a distressing lack of plot, have you noticed?), but Woodson does a good job of tying her life story together in a cohesive way. Whether it scoops a lot of big awards or not, I think this is an important book, and I'd recommend it to memoir readers and kid lit aficionados.

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan

The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan is the conclusion of the Heroes of Olympus series.

The seven demigods of prophecy have come a long way over the course of the past four books. Now, as they travel through Greece to the final conflict, they fight battles both internal and external as they contemplate what certain lines of the prophecy may mean. Meanwhile, Nico, Reyna, and Coach Hedge struggle to transport the Athena Parthenos back to Camp Half-Blood in time to avert a deadly conflict between the Greek and Roman demigods. If they don't make it back in time, the consequences could be devastating. As the final battle looms, the fates of all of the characters in the story are far from certain.

This book, like its predecessors, is satisfyingly fast-paced and action-filled. All of the major plot points are wrapped up, though Riordan does leave a few tantalizing threads dangling, offering hope for perhaps a few more short stories featuring certain intriguing characters. I have just a minor criticism of this book, and since it constitutes a spoiler, readers who have not yet finished the book may want to stop reading here.

This may seem like a strange criticism, but nobody important died in the big final battle (unless you count Octavian, who had been set up as a minor villain since the first book). Despite two major conflicts raging, all seven (or nine, or ten if you want to count Nico, Reyna, and Coach Hedge) major characters lived. Which is great, but I honestly expected that at least one of the Seven would die in the last battle. In fact, though this series looks and feels more young adult (as opposed to juvenile) than the original Percy Jackson series, Riordan killed off more named characters in that series than in this one, by my count. It just feels a little cheap, especially in comparison with other major series for children and young adults. Everybody lives, everybody gets a love interest, nobody has to deal with consequences for an adventure of the scope of the one they've just had. Am I being a curmudgeon? If so, remember that I said this was a minor criticism -- I still enjoyed the series, and will probably enjoy more than one reread of it in the future.

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire is an inventive fantasy from a master of the craft.

Once upon a time in Russia, there were two girls -- a city girl and a country girl, a rich girl and a poor girl. It was the unlikeliest of things, that their paths should cross . . . but they did. When the two girls inadvertently change places in a quickly changing world, they are both caught up in a story rich with Russian folklore and magic. Their story will involve a prince and a monk, a witch, a dragon, and a firebird, and an egg -- more than one egg, in fact.

Maguire weaves a splendid story in this book. It's so very Russian, and I am a sucker for all things Russian. And it has elements of fairy tales, and I am a sucker for fairy tales. If there's a target audience for this book, I'm plopped down comfortably right in the middle of it, and happy to be there. And if it sounds like you might be anywhere close to me, I definitely recommend this book!

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

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Water Song by Suzanne Weyn

Water Song by Suzanne Weyn is a young adult retelling of The Frog Prince.

It's 1915, and Emma is trapped at her mother's family estate in Belgium, right on the front lines of World War I. When Jack, an American enlisted in the British army, flees a chlorine gas attack by climbing into the old well on the estate, circumstances conspire to bring the two young people together, dissimilar though they may be. And when German soldiers take over the estate for use as a command post, some quick thinking on Emma's part gains the pair temporary safety. As the days pass, their time appears to be running out. Can they escape the estate -- and will the tentative beginnings of a romance that has sprung up between them survive the rest of the war?

This is part of the "Once Upon a Time" series of young adult fantasy retellings, some of which I have quite enjoyed, but I found this one fairly weak. Part of the problem is that the only magic in the story is some folk magic Jack learned from his mother during his Louisiana boyhood, so this mostly ends up being historical fiction -- and not the best historical fiction, either. I'd likely forgive this to some extent if the characters had been more believable, but I never really bought into the romance between Jack and Emma, nor did I like either of them very much on their own. Much as I love fairy tale retellings, this isn't one I'm likely to recommend.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Night Journey by Kathryn Lasky

The Night Journey by Kathryn Lasky is a tale of escape to freedom and friendship between the generations.

Rache never really knows what to say to her Great-Grandma Sashie. Her family encourages her to spend time with her elderly relative and to talk about school (boring!) or her friends and her daily activities -- but not to get Grandma Sashie talking about the past or the Old Country, because it upsets her. However, when Grandma Sashie starts in on the story of her family's escape from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, Rache starts to see glimpses of the spunky, spirited young girl who devised a major part of the family's escape plan. Over the next few weeks, Rache sneaks in to Grandma Sashie's room at odd hours to hear of how the family left their hometown of Nicolayev underneath crates of chickens in a wagon, traveled across the countryside disguised as Purim players (and, at one point, a funeral procession), and even managed to trick the crooked border guard out of some of the gold they had hidden away in the Hamantaschen cookies! In listening to Grandma Sashie's stories, Rache feels deeply connected to her heritage for the first time in her life. But what will her family say when they learn that she has been talking to Grandma Sashie about the past?

I initially bought this book because it was illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, and the black-and-white illustrations certainly do add to the book. Grandma Sashie's story is fresh and compelling, though Rache's parts of the book felt a bit dated to me. Still, I'd recommend this book, particularly to readers who enjoy historical fiction involving immigrants.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Nest by Esther Ehrlich is juvenile fiction set in the early 1970s.

Naomi, or Chirp, as she prefers to be called, lives a happy, secure life with her close-knit family on Cape Cod. During Chirp's eleventh year, however, her life changes in many ways. When her mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and then sinks into a deep depression for which she is hospitalized for many months, Chirp, her father, and her older sister are left to struggle along together, each taking on roles unfamiliar to them. In this uncertain time, Chirp forms a tentative friendship with Joey, the boy next door, whose unhappy home life is a dark contrast to Chirp's. And when Chirp is going through a particularly difficult time, her friendship with Joey may provide the safe space that she needs when her world seems to be falling apart.

This book does a fine job of being poignant but not manipulative in dealing with serious subject matter. Characterization is definitely one of this author's strong suits -- each character is flawed but likable, and acts in ways that seemed to me entirely true to life. I do wonder why the author chose to set the book in the 1970s, as opposed to present-day. All in all, this is a good book for readers who enjoy juvenile fiction that touches on serious issues.

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis is the sequel to Bud, Not Buddy, though it stands just fine on its own.

It's the spring of 1936, and America is in the grips of the Great Depression. Across the country, sports fans are hanging their hopes on the upcoming boxing bout between Joe Louis and German champion Max Schmeling. And in Gary, Indiana, Deza Malone's family is getting by, if only just. Her father was laid off at the factory, but her mother has a steady job cleaning for the manager of the local bank. Deza is busy with her normal pursuits: getting top marks in school and attempting to read every book in the Gary Public Library. But, in such precarious times, even a small disaster can topple a family's security. When one such disaster strikes the Malone family, can they rise above it?

I've really enjoyed every book I've read by Christopher Paul Curtis, and this was no exception. I found it a little darker and more sobering than some of his books, though it still contains sparks of his trademark humor. As always, Curtis has the ability to create characters one really cares about. I loved the family dynamics in the Malone family, and the way Curtis explored those dynamics as the family underwent trials and hardships. I listened to the audiobook version of this story, and narrator Bahni Turpin did an excellent job as always -- as I listen to more and more audiobooks, she is one of the names I'm starting to watch for. I highly recommend this book, especially as an audiobook.

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells

Emilie & the Hollow World by Martha Wells is a young adult steampunk adventure to the interior of the Earth.

In the process of stowing away on a steamship to escape her dreadful relatives, sixteen-year-old Emilie unwittingly finds herself part of a dangerous expedition beneath the Earth's crust. The ship she ends up on is not the placid steamer Merry Bell, but the Sovereign, a vessel specially designed to travel aetheric currents beneath the ocean to the inside of the world. Of course, it's never actually made this dangerous journey before . . .

I liked a lot of things about this book: the concept, the fast-paced plot, the well-imagined world of the Earth's interior, and the interplay between the steampunk science and the magic necessary to push it a few steps further. I thought the characterization was not as strong as the plot -- the cast of characters was large, and some of the minor characters seemed to run together, but not enough to make this more than a small quibble. I also thought Emilie acted a little young for her age. In fact, until her age was stated, I was picturing her as about 12, and had to mentally re-adjust. But it could just be that I'm used to 16-year-olds (especially in fantasy, where they're likely to be ruling a country or saving the world) who are written as more mature than real-life teens. Again, though, that's a minor issue in comparison to how much I enjoyed this book. I'm looking forward to reading the sequels. I'd recommend this to fans of Gail Carriger's Finishing School series.

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh was a reread for me -- this time, I listened to the audiobook.

Harriet M. Welsch is going to be a writer some day. For now, she is observing everything she can, from her family to her classmates to the neighbors she observes on her "spy route." She writes candidly (and often cruelly) in her notebook, but when that notebook is discovered and read by her classmates, Harriet is headed for trouble!

I haven't reread this book in years, and what struck me this time is how well Fitzhugh wrote about the experience of childhood. Harriet is kind of a brat, and I wouldn't want to be around her in real life, but she manages to be sympathetic in the context of the story. This childhood classic is one I highly recommend for both children and adults.

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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson

The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson is a lighthearted juvenile fantasy, one of the last books Ibbotson completed before her death.

A hag, a troll, a bumbling wizard, and an orphan boy are an unlikely set of adventurers, but they may be just what is needed in these circumstances. You see, it appears that Princess Mirella has been kidnapped by the fearsome ogre of Oglefort -- but, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving! Strong-minded Mirella ran away from an arranged marriage, the ogre is suffering from depression and has decided to just lay down and die, and Oglefort proves surprisingly comfortable and homelike to the hag, troll, wizard, and orphan, all of whom were feeling useless and displaced back in London. There are a few problems, though: the Norns (creatures something like the Fates) sent the adventurers to defeat the ogre, and they will be displeased if the mission fails. Also, Mirella's parents are preparing to send an army after their daughter -- never mind her unwillingness to be rescued!

This is a fun read without a great deal of depth. I find most of Ibbotson's juvenile fantasies to be that way, in fact -- I much prefer her historical romances. This is certainly not a bad book, and I'll recommend it to the target audience of middle-grade fantasy fans.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Troll's Eye View, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Troll's Eye View is another short story collection edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Each of these stories is a twist on the original, since it takes the villain's perspective. The stories range from humorous to bittersweet. I found that I liked this collection even better than A Wolf at the Door. My favorite story in this collection is "A Delicate Architecture" by Cathrynne M. Valente, which is a prequel to Hansel and Gretel, explaining where the witch with the gingerbread house came from and why she behaves as she does. There are several other stories in the book that I really enjoyed as well, and none that I actively disliked. Readers of fractured and twisted fairy tales should certainly look this one up!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz has a cover nearly completely obscured by shiny award stickers, all well-deserved.

Ari's always been something of a loner, but that changes during his fifteenth summer. That's when he meets Dante -- also something of a loner, though in most ways very different from Ari. The two boys quickly become fast friends, but can their friendship survive the turmoil that their teenage years will hold?

It's interesting: I've read a few reviews here and there from people who really disliked the writing style in this book. Now, granted, I listened to the audiobook, so I don't know if reading it on the page would have been different for me, but in listening to the story I found that Sáenz has an absolutely brilliant ear for dialogue. I was blown away by the writing here -- very simple, but just true in a deep, solid way. I loved the characters, Dante's parents in particular, and just when I thought this was going to be a quiet sort of coming-of-age story, a plot twist came along and punched me in the gut. All in all, this was one of the best books I've read (well, listened to) this year. It's not quite perfect -- I have a minor quibble with the ending, and there are a couple of minor characters that I'd have liked to know a little better -- but it's a really good book, and I definitely recommend it. And if you are an audiobook listener, this may be one of those rare titles that is better as an audio than in print.

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm is a delightful sci-fi story for middle grade readers.

Ellie's grandfather is a scientist. He's cranky, particular, and hoards packets of soy sauce when they visit the Chinese restaurant. What Ellie does not expect is that one day he will turn up at her house as a teenage boy, having discovered a cure for aging using cells from a rare jellyfish. Grandpa Melvin, now looking like an oddly-dressed thirteen-year-old, is discovering that being a teenager again has its drawbacks -- most notably, he can't get into his lab any more to continue working on his experiments. Ellie, on the other hand, is discovering the drawbacks of adolescence for the first time, as her best friend discovers new interests that don't include Ellie. Then again, Ellie is discovering new interests of her own: when Grandpa Melvin talks about science, it's a lot more interesting than she ever realized before. With the help of a new friend from school, Ellie and Grandpa Melvin hatch a plan to rescue Grandpa Melvin's experiments from his lab so he can continue his work. But Ellie is starting to wonder if there might be serious consequences to Grandpa Melvin's discovery. Is helping him continue to experiment really the best thing to do?

This story has a lot of good things going for it: it's a fast, funny read that incorporates a lot of science without becoming didactic. I thought it had just a couple of weaknesses, all related to the ending, which I don't want to give away here. So, if you find the summary intriguing, you will just have to read it and tell me whether you buy what happens at the end of the book, or if you (like me) were expecting a different outcome based on certain clues in the text.  But even though I'm not a hundred percent sold on the ending, I thought this was an excellent book, and I'll be recommending it to kids at my library.

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle by George Hagen

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle by George Hagen is the first book in a new juvenile fantasy series.

Gabriel's mother disappeared when he was very young, and his father disappeared three years ago. And then there's his uncle Corax, who disappeared years before Gabriel was even born. That's a lot of disappearances for one family! But despite all of those mysterious disappearances, Gabriel lives a pretty normal life in his Aunt Jasmine's brownstone in Brooklyn. One day Gabriel asks his Aunt Jaz to tell him more about his father's disappearance -- a request he's made many times before -- and this time, she complies by giving him a small book. It is, in fact, his father's diary, and through it Gabriel learns many fantastical facts about his family, riddles, ravens, a valuable object, and a dangerous enemy. Gabriel is about to embark on the greatest adventure of his life . . . and it all starts when he rescues an orphaned baby raven named Paladin.

I've seen this book pitched as the next Harry Potter. Well, it's not that, but it is an enjoyable read that will appeal to the same fan base. If anything, I'd say it's the next Gregor the Overlander. I'll probably continue reading the series, and I'll certainly recommend it to fans of juvenile fantasy.

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins is another sweet love story from the author of Anna and the French Kiss.

Isla has had a crush on Josh ever since she was a freshman at the School of America in Paris. When she has a chance encounter with him in a Manhattan cafe just before their senior year, she dares to dream that a relationship might be in the cards for the two of them. Sure enough, they go from swapping smitten stares across classrooms, to hanging out together at the comic shop, to making out in school broom closets and anywhere else that provides a modicum of privacy. Theirs is an unexpected pairing: Josh has carefully cultivated a bad-boy image, while Isla is the responsible, studious one who is likely to be valedictorian. In a classic case of opposites attracting, they are both head over heels with each other. But when a disastrous choice puts an ocean between them, Isla's doubts begin to surface: does Josh really love her, or was he just going out with her because she was there?

As with Perkins' other books, there's a lot to like here. Isla is sweet and funny, and her insecurities and concerns about her future make for a convincing teenage character (it's okay not to know what you want to do with your life at age 17). Isla and Josh's relationship is a lot more steamy and physical than Anna and St. Clair's or Lola and Cricket's, but it's described in that same delightful way that will have readers swooning. Also, I would really like to read Josh's graphic novel memoir now! There are cameos by Anna and St. Clair and Lola and Cricket, too, which are lovely but brief. All in all, I found this a satisfying romance, and it made me want to go back and reread the other two to see all the ways the three books fit together -- though I think that readers new to Perkins can start with any of the three books without missing too much.

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

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Unthinkable by Nancy Werlin

Unthinkable by Nancy Werlin is the sequel to Impossible.

Lucy broke the curse on the Scarborough women, but Fenella, the curse's original victim, still isn't free. She's been a captive in Faerie all this time, cursed with unnaturally long life, forced to see Padraig's twisted desires fulfilled with each of her descendants. Now Padraig's power is broken, and Fenella just wants to die peacefully -- but she can't. She petitions the Queen of Faerie, and learns that the only way she can gain death is by completing three tasks, just as Lucy did. There's a twist, though: Fenella's tasks are all acts of destruction -- and they must be carried out against Fenella's family: Lucy, Zach, and baby Dawn, Lucy's adoptive parents Leo and Soledad, and poor Miranda, the last Scarborough to suffer the full effects of the curse. Fenella is determined to complete the tasks and earn her death, and to cause as little damage as possible in the process. But there are a few things she doesn't foresee...

I enjoyed this almost as much as Impossible, and more than Extraordinary, which is a companion to these two books. Fenella's desperation and determination at the beginning of the novel are tempered by her curiosity about 21st century life when she arrives at Lucy and Zach's house. I also really liked the way Fenella's back-story, the beginning of the Scarborough curse, is woven into the narrative. I recommend this book, but it's imperative to read Impossible first.

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Joys of Love by Madeleine L'Engle

The Joys of Love by Madeleine L'Engle is a coming-of-age story set in the world of summer stock theatre just after the second World War.

Elizabeth's Aunt Harriet does not approve of the theatre, but it's been Elizabeth's dream ever since she can remember. Elizabeth's parents are dead, and her strict aunt has seen to her upbringing, but Elizabeth made a deal with Aunt Harriet before going to college: if Elizabeth studied chemistry and graduated with honors, she would be allowed a summer working in the theatre. And, finally, that summer has arrived. Elizabeth managed to secure an unpaid apprenticeship, and Aunt Harriet begrudgingly sends a weekly check for room and board. Elizabeth is having the time of her life with her new friends... and Kurt. Kurt Canitz is the charismatic young director, and he finds Elizabeth's naivete refreshing. Elizabeth is a bit starstruck and madly in love. She knows he doesn't exactly love her, not the way that she loves him, but she turns a deaf ear to her friends' warnings about the danger Kurt poses to her heart. And of course there's plenty of other backstage drama as well. Just when it looks like both love and theatrical success are within Elizabeth's grasp, things fall apart. Will Elizabeth have to give up on her dreams?

Published after L'Engle's death, this early novel of hers is a sweet and simple story drawing on her own experiences as a young woman in the theatrical world. The book's title is a reference to the song "Plaisir D'Amour" -- "The pleasure of love lasts only a moment / The grief of love lasts a lifetime." Elizabeth is full of love for both Kurt and the world of the theatre, but when Kurt disappoints her (as it's obvious he's going to do; that's hardly a spoiler, right?), she has to grow up a bit and take a look at the theatrical world that she's idealized, and decide whether it's still what she wants to do if it's not as gleaming and perfect as it seemed from Aunt Harriet's spare bedroom. I really enjoyed this book, though it's perhaps not as deep and complex as some of L'Engle's better-known books.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher . . . er, some time ago.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Millhouse by Natale Ghent

Millhouse by Natale Ghent is the story of a theatrical guinea pig languishing in a pet shop.

Ever since his former owner died, Millhouse (or Milly, as he prefers to be called) has lived at a rather unsuccessful pet shop. The other small animals at the shop make fun of him for his theatrical ambitions, and because he is a hairless guinea pig. Indeed, his appearance has proved off-putting to more than one potential buyer, and Milly wonders if he will spend his entire friendless life in a cage at the shop. Fortunately for Milly, friendship awaits in unexpected places, and there may yet be the perfect home out there just for him.

This book wanted to be one of those sweet and charming animal stories, but I found it only moderately successful. Milly's foibles didn't make me like him better, and although I did thoroughly dislike the other guinea pigs at the pet shop, I didn't think they were particularly distinct or at all well-developed characters. Perhaps young readers who really love stories of animals (and guinea pigs in particular) will embrace this book more than I did, but I'm just not feeling it.

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher, obtained through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Wolf at the Door, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Winding

A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, is a short story collection that I've had on my shelf for a while now, and I finally got around to reading it. It's much what I would expect from a Datlow/Windling compilation -- stories ranging from moderately good to very good, from familiar writers as well as lesser-known ones. The real gem of this collection is Neil Gaiman's poem, "Instructions," which was later published as a picture book. I enjoyed all of the other stories, but none of them stuck with me in the same way. This is a solid collection, recommended for those who love fairy tales.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Blood Guard by Carter Roy

The Blood Guard by Carter Roy is the first book in an action-packed middle-grade series.

Ronan Truelove thought he had a pretty normal life. Sure, his mom kept his schedule packed with extracurriculars like fencing and taekwondo, but he figures she just wants him to be well-rounded so he can get into a good college. And yeah, there was that weird fire at his house a year or so ago, the one the authorities ended up calling a freak accident, but that sort of thing could have happened to anyone. But on the day his mom pulls him out of school and drives off, tailed by a couple of aggressive SUVs, everything Ronan thinks he knows about his life starts to change. In the course of that high-speed car chase, Ronan finds out that his mother is a member of an ancient fighting force known as the Blood Guard, who exist to protect 36 pure souls whose existence balances the levels of good and evil in the universe. And Ronan is being trained to follow in her footsteps. As the two evade the mysterious bad guys who are chasing them, Ronan's mom tells him that his father has disappeared, their house is no longer safe, and he must get on a train bound for Washington D.C., where another member of the Blood Guard would meet up with him and keep him safe. Unfortunately, things don't go exactly as planned. Ronan will soon be on the adventure of his life, accompanied by a cheeky teenage pickpocket named Jack, and Greta, a scrappy acquaintance from a previous school. Pursued by strangers who mean them harm, can they get to safety? Is safety even an option for Ronan any more, now that he knows about the Blood Guard?

I found this a great, fast-paced read. In tone, it's very similar to the Percy Jackson series -- the same wry humor in the face of fantastical danger. There were a couple of places where the writing faltered (I had a hard time keeping track of where characters were in the big running-and-fighting scene near the end of the book), but all in all, this was a satisfying, exciting read, and I'll probably read more books in the series when they are available. I'll definitely be recommending this to Percy Jackson fans looking for read-alikes.

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

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn is a fairytale-like story of finding your place in the world.

For as long as she can remember, Marni has lived with her Gramps in a little cottage at the edge of the forest, selling flowers to the villagers and the courtiers alike. The forest is a place of powerful magic, filled with mysterious creatures. Sometimes, young women run away into the forest and are never heard from again. The forest can even encroach on farmland overnight, and it seems to be advancing across the kingdom. Marni doesn't fear the forest, though, and it never creeps any closer to the cottage where she lives. Perhaps that is because Marni's mother was the only runaway girl who ever returned from the forest -- though she paid a horrible price for doing so. Marni's mother was a princess, and she returned from the forest bearing an illegitimate child, what was called, in that country, a "dragon's child." And for that, her own brother killed her. He would have killed Marni, too, but his father stood in the way of the sword, and promised to abdicate the throne if he would spare the child. Now, Marni and her Gramps sell flowers, and her uncle is the king. Marni is content to let things go on the way they always have, but she is changing, drawing the attention of both lords and village boys . . . and her Gramps is getting older. Marni is not exactly a princess, but she's not exactly a villager, either -- and, though the forest calls to her, she can't quite embrace the fate of those heedless runaway girls. Where does Marni belong?

This is a lovely, engaging, and well-written story. My only real problem with it was that I had a hard time accepting the setup described above, with the ex-king and the ex(?)-princess living in a cottage within walking distance, apparently, of the castle. Perhaps it was the way it was presented; by the end of the story I had fewer issues, but at the beginning I found it rather hard to swallow. Still, I got past it and very much enjoyed the story as presented. I'll look forward to seeing more from this author, and would recommend this book to readers who like stories with a distinctive fairytale feel and beautiful prose.

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich follows an Ojibwa girl through one eventful year in her life.

Omakayas is a young Native American girl who lives with her family on an island on Lake Superior. Though the story is set in the 1840s, contemporary readers will empathize with Omakayas' struggles with her siblings, her desire to be treated as a more mature girl rather than a child, and her thoughts about the purpose of her life. These strands weave together so that the mostly episodic plot has a nice cohesion. I think this book serves as a nice counterpoint to the Little House series, which is excellent in many ways but does tend to vilify the Native Americans that appear in that story.

I listened to the audiobook of this story, and found it enjoyable. I think listening to this book on audio was a particularly good decision for me, since there are many unfamiliar words and names that I would have stumbled over if I were just reading.

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund is a post-apocalyptic retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and companion to For Darkness Shows the Stars.

On the island of Galatea, a revolution rages. The queen has been executed, and now aristocrats are being Reduced (having their mental capacities chemically diminished) by the leaders of the revolution. It's the beginning of a new era, according to the new leaders. Meanwhile, across a narrow stretch of sea, life in Albion goes on much as it ever has, with butterfly-like courtiers flitting through the court of the Princess Regent -- and none is brighter or flightier than Lady Persis Blake, one of the princess's closest friends. Persis plays the role of the airhead socialite, but she is leading a dangerous double life as the Wild Poppy, a daring spy who sneaks Galatean aristocrats and sympathizers across the channel to safety. On one such journey, when something goes wrong with her disguise (a sequence that temporarily alters her appearance) and she is taken ill, she is helped onto her yacht by Justen Helo, darling of the revolution, who was himself secretly looking for a way off Galatea and out of his old life as a revolutionary. The princess offers him refuge in her court. Fearing for his sister, still a devoted revolutionary, Justen needs a cover story, and the princess creates one for him: he will play the role of the smitten love interest to Lady Persis. Not knowing that she is the Wild Poppy, Justen initially despises Persis for being empty-headed and superficial, but as he gets to know her a little better, he finds himself attracted to her in truth. As for Persis, she feels she can't get close to anyone who might endanger her role as the Wild Poppy, and she can't trust Justen -- what if he's not as divorced from the revolution as he claims?

This gender-swapped Scarlet Pimpernel is a lot of fun. It is technically set in a post-apocalyptic society, but one that has moved on to create numerous scientific advances which integrate nicely into the plot. The romance angle isn't quite as high-stakes as the one in the original story, but it still works. Though this is a companion to For Darkness Shows the Stars, it stands well on its own. Readers who enjoy imaginative retellings of classic literature should give this book a try!

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher by Jessica Lawson is a re-imagining of events surrounding Mark Twain's classic story, but from a different perspective.

After her brother died, Becky's father, Judge Thatcher, decided that the family needed a new start in St. Petersburg, Missouri. The problem is, Becky's mother is still holding on to her grief, leaving Becky mostly to her own devices -- and Becky's response is to become to most audacious little scamp ever to roam the banks of the mighty Mississippi! From throwing spitballs to sneaking into a witch's house to tracking down wanted criminals, there's nothing Becky will stop at -- even when it puts her in considerable danger.

I think young readers will have a lot of fun with this book, and those who have read Tom Sawyer will appreciate the clever way that this book comes together, as Becky's exploits amuse and inspire a stranded riverboat captain by the name of Sam Clemens. For myself, I'm afraid I found Becky hard to like, as her hijinks often seemed a little hard-hearted. There's no denying the humor of the book, nor that it touches on deeper issues of grief and family, so I would recommend this book, especially to readers who don't mind reading about a character who is not always likable.

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm is a frontier story set in a community of Finnish immigrants Washington State.

May Amelia has seven brothers, but not a single sister. She can keep up with the boys, but doing so often gets her in trouble, especially from her father. But why should the boys get to have all the fun, just because May Amelia is supposed to be learning how to be a proper young lady?

This story combines lighthearted moments of humor with themes of surprising depth as May Amelia experiences both the joys and the hardships of frontier living. I can see the episodic nature of the story making for good classroom reading, but the lack of a narrative arc makes it seem a bit disjointed at times. Still, readers who enjoy tales of plucky heroines of days gone by are sure to enjoy this book.

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

My Real Children by Jo Walton is a fascinating, character-driven alternate history for grown-ups.

Patricia is very old (she can't quite remember how old), and she's in a nursing home. "Confused today," the nurses write on her chart, or, "Very confused." They often write, "Very confused." It's true. It's not exactly that Patricia can't remember certain things -- it's that she remembers two lives. Did she marry Mark shortly after college, or did she find happiness a little later in life with Bee? Did she have three children, or four? Was her time spent writing travel guides about Italy, or did she volunteer with groups devoted to preventing nuclear war? She can't even remember whether she went by Pat or Trish for most of her adult life. Patricia loves all of her children, and though one of her lives may have been happier than the other, both had moments of beauty and truth. Must she choose between them?

This is a lovely, haunting book. It bears within it a lot of sadness, and it's by no means a light read, but it is just beautiful. I'm also impressed at the way Walton plays with the chronology, creating not one alternate history, but two. (I kept trying to figure out which of Patricia's lives was the "real" one, but neither exactly mirrors the world as we know it.) This is a book I know I'll want to revisit in the future, and I know it's one that will only improve upon rereading.
(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor is a gentle read set in the mountains of North Carolina.

Ever since her husband died, Aggie Duncan has had trouble keeping up the Sleepy Time Motel. Reluctantly, she decides that it may be time to sell. That decision will bring Willow and her father to the motel in search of a fresh start -- or at least Willow's father is in search of a fresh start. Willow is missing her old life: friends, house, and the mother who left her and her father behind. Loretta, a girl just a little younger than Willow, also finds herself at the Sleepy Time motel. She's on a personal quest, with the blessing of her adoptive family, to learn a little more about her recently deceased biological mother. Kirby and his mother are also guests at the motel, and unwilling ones at that, since they were on their way to Kirby's new military school when their car broke down. Kirby's been in trouble for a long time now, and this school is his last chance. Can he find a different pattern of behavior, or will he slip back into old habits?

This book is told in alternating perspectives, shifting back and forth between the children and adults staying at the motel. The narratives bump up against each other and weave loosely together as the characters interact and learn about each other and themselves. I never felt very connected to any of them, nor did I care strongly about the outcome of the story. That's not to say that it wasn't a pleasant book, just not one that is going to grab hold of the reader's imagination. The story has a strong sense of place, and since it's a place I'm familiar with, I was able to picture it clearly. Readers looking for this sort of gentle summer story may enjoy this book, though those looking for adventure and excitement should probably look elsewhere.
(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)