Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr is realistic YA fiction about a girl coming to terms with her family and her future.

Eight months ago, fifteen-year-old Lucy Beck-Moreau walked off the stage of an international piano competition in Prague, and she hasn't touched a piano since. Lucy was on a trajectory to become one of the greatest concert pianists in the world, but when bad news from home caused her to take a second to think about her life, she realized that she wasn't enjoying piano any more. Now, Lucy is settling into her normal life as a privileged teen -- but can she really give up piano completely? Enter Will, her brother's charismatic young piano teacher. Will and Lucy become friends . . . close friends . . . and Will encourages Lucy to play once more, this time for herself. But can Lucy's family accept Lucy doing piano on her terms?

I spent the bulk of this book thinking "Oh, this is not a good idea, this is really not a good idea," as Will and Lucy grew closer and closer. The author did end up taking that relationship in a direction that I did not expect, and I thought it made for a stronger ending than I was anticipating. But this book is really more about Lucy's personal journey back to loving piano and music again. I'd recommend this book to music lovers and anyone who has been in a highly competitive situation and questioned whether it was worth the stress.

I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by the author. She did an adequate job, and there were some nice touches in terms of production quality, such as snippets of the music referenced in the text playing under the narration.

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty is the first book in a quirky YA fantasy series.

Madeleine ran away, but this time her mother came, too. Now the two of them live in gloomy Cambridge, far from the glamorous lifestyle they shared with Madeleine's father. Madeleine has made friends with Jack and Bella, two local teens, and they've finagled a haphazard system of homeschooling, spreading different subjects among the various adults they know. Madeleine sometimes misses her old life. Then, one day, she finds a mysterious letter slipped under a broken parking meter -- and she writes back.

Elliot lives in the kingdom of Cello, in the farmlands. In Elliot's world, rogue colors occasionally attack, which is what happened on the night Elliot's father disappeared. Of course, that doesn't exactly explain how Elliot's uncle was killed, or why the attractive high school physics teacher also disappeared. Elliot does not believe his father would run away with another woman, so he spends all of his time and energy searching for a way to trace his father and rescue him if he is being held somewhere against his will. In the meantime, time marches on, and there are other things demanding Elliot's attention -- the Deftball championship, for instance, and the Butterfly Child, and the Royal Progress, and the strange family who are renting his father's electronics shop. And, of course, the letters from a girl in The World that keep materializing in a sculpture one of his friends built . . .

This is an eclectic mix of elements that somehow manages to work, though it's perhaps a bit of a slow starter. The characters are complex and not always entirely reliable, and the convoluted plot and interesting use of colors reminded me a little bit of Jasper Fforde. I liked the way the story wrapped up, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ask Again Later by Liz Czukas

Ask Again Later by Liz Czukas is a fun and fluffy YA book.

Heart has plans for a drama-free prom: she's going with a group of friends, and they've dubbed it the "No Drama Prom-a." Then Ryan from French class asks her to go "just as a friend," and her older brother asks her to go with Troy, one of his friends who has just gotten dumped. Heart's not romantically interested in either of the two guys, but there are good reasons to go with either of them, and she knows her friends won't mind if she backs out on their group. But which should she choose? Her best friend's Magic Eight Ball is no help. Heart decides to settle it by flipping a coin. That coin toss will result in her actually experiencing the prom from both standpoints simultaneously.

This book is plenty of fun, with lots of humor and snark. Heart doesn't take the whole prom thing too seriously, and there's a romance that readers will see coming but still cheer for as the story plays out. I wasn't sure how the "two proms at one time" thing would work, but I think it came together fairly well (there was some rapid-fire switching back and forth near the end of the book that kind of lost me), and I liked the way that certain key things happened in both timelines, but in slightly different ways. If you like this sort of light reading, you should give this book a try.

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Last Full Measure by Ann Rinaldi

The Last Full Measure by Ann Rinaldi is a young adult novel about life in the town of Gettysburg during the Civil War.

Fourteen-year-old Tacy's father is an army doctor, and two of her three older brothers are soldiers in the Union Army. Her other brother, David, has an injured foot that prevents him from joining the army, so their father has tasked him with caring for his mother and sister at their home in Gettysburg. Tacy used to have a good relationship with her brother, but the war has changed that: he's now domineering and repressive, while she has grown more headstrong and sassy. But with soldiers on both sides of the conflict arriving in town, there are many dangers facing a young woman of Tacy's age -- not to mention the dangers that her father and brothers face on the battlefield every day. Will Tacy and her family make it through the battle unscathed?

I'm usually a fan of Rinaldi's writing, but this is not one of her stronger books. Part of the problem is that Tacy doesn't have much agency, nor does she gain any over the course of the story. This is historically accurate, but potentially frustrating for readers who might be expecting one of Rinaldi's typical strong heroines. Tacy does have a certain strength of will, but the story is less about her and more about day to day life in Gettysburg during the battle. Moreover, Tacy's voice is prosaic, even when describing events where she is experiencing heightened emotion. This lends a certain level of detachment to the story; I never felt like I really connected with Tacy. I found myself easily pulled out of the story, therefore, when I encountered small, irksome details, like David saying "I've given her a lot of crap lately," a distinctly modern turn of phrase. I also don't feel that the title of the book is a good fit, especially considering that there are other Civil War books out there with the same or similar titles (notably Jeff Shaara's The Last Full Measure). A little more originality would help reduce confusion. On the other hand, Rinaldi's careful research is evident, both in the book itself and in the Author's Note at the end. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as an introduction to Rinaldi's writing, her fans are likely to enjoy the book, as well as those who are particularly interested in the Battle of Gettysburg.

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

Monday, April 7, 2014

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell is a fantasy set in medival Europe.

Matilda may be a princess, but she feels anything but in control of her life. Since she is lame in one foot, her days are spent doing scribe's work related to the running of her small country, which she will rule when she comes of age. Enjoying a few days of freedom while her mother is away on a visit, Tilda and her maidservant Judith travel to a neighboring knight's home to help set his accounts in order, and to visit her friend Parzifal who is a squire there. While there, Tilda is captured by her evil Cousin Ivo, who has designs on her land and plans to step into her place as ruler. Tilda, who dreams of retiring to a quiet convent where she could spend her days in a scriptorium writing her own book, tells Ivo he can have her country, though of course he doesn't believe her. That night, Parz and Judith rescue Tilda, and the three go on the run. Parz and Judith plan to become dragon slayers, and Tilda will finally get to write her own book, a handbook for dragon slayers. There's a little problem, of course: none of them really know anything about dragons or dragon-slaying. And is running away from her responsibilities truly the solution to Tilda's problems?

This story has plenty of action, and a plot that is fairly unpredictable -- I thought I knew where the story was going, and then it would shift and surprise me, which was refreshing (though occasionally disorienting). Tilda and her friends experience a lot of character development as they learn about what it will take to pursue their ambitions. Minor characters are likewise rendered in shades of gray, rarely all good or all bad (though there is one bad guy who is pretty much evil all the way through). Though the setting is medieval, the language is modern, with no thees or thous in sight. I thought this was a fun read with a surprising amount of depth, and I will recommend it to kids and adults who enjoy this sort of fantasy story.

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

Friday, April 4, 2014

House of Ivy and Sorrow by Natalie Whipple

House of Ivy & Sorrow by Natalie Whipple is a YA paranormal story.

They say a witch lives in the old house under the bridge. They're right. Josephine Hemlock and her grandmother are the last in a long line of powerful witches, but they have equally powerful enemies. Jo's mother died of a mysterious curse, and when Jo's father arrives in town unexpectedly, the same dark forces are trailing along behind him. Jo and her grandmother must figure out who their enemies are and how the curse works, before it destroys everything they love.

I thought this book was good, but I'm finding it not particularly memorable. Writing this review now, just a few days after reading, the details have gone fuzzy in my head. (Or is that the cold medicine speaking?) From the cover and title, I expected a story with a much darker tone, more mysterious and fantastical, whereas the tone in this book is generally upbeat with touches of humor and sarcasm even in the direst of situations. Not that I'm lamenting a dearth of angst, mind you, but it's not exactly what I was expecting! All in all, a pleasant enough story, but not one I'll particularly want to revisit.

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Spine Poetry

In honor of National Poetry Month, here are two book spine poems for your enjoyment. 

First, a funny one:

 Dorothy must die!
The doom machine
And another thing...
Pure dead magic.

Then, one with a more wistful tone:
 Geektastic Fangirl,
Not exactly normal:
So you want to be a wizard?
Keep holding on.

Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr

Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr is a story of two girls in the summer between high school and college.

Elizabeth can hardly wait to go to college. She's going all the way across the country to UC-Berkeley, as far as she can get from her controlling mother. When she gets an email with her housing assignment, she immediately contacts her new roommate to coordinate things for their dorm room.

Lauren is less than thrilled to get Elizabeth's email -- she had requested a single. After sharing a room with two younger sisters, she was hoping for a little privacy. But being the oldest of six siblings means she is also able to adjust her expectations, so she writes back to Elizabeth, and a tentative friendship is formed.

Over the course of the summer, the two girls will get to know each other through email, sharing anecdotes about friendships, parents, and boys, and looking forward to what's ahead. But when their communication hits a rocky patch, it starts to look like the girls will not be friends -- or even roommates -- by the time fall rolls around.

Readers who enjoy realistic YA fiction dealing with these sorts of issues will enjoy this book. It's well-written and the characters are relatable, though readers may not always agree with their decisions or opinions.

I listened to the audiobook, and while it was a fairly good production, I thought the two girls sounded too much alike, despite being voiced by different actors. I don't think this was an issue in the writing, and each segment was set apart with the date and location so it was easy to follow when there was a change between characters, but the two did sound fairly similar, so if I paused in the middle of a segment and came back to it later, it sometimes took me a little while to remember who was speaking. But it wasn't enough to really lessen my enjoyment of the story -- just a minor quibble.

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