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.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle is the sequel to Better Nate than Ever, so, you know, spoilers.

Nate Foster's Broadway dreams have been realized -- sort of. He's in New York, rehearsing for his role in E.T.: The Musical. And, okay, that role is an understudy part, but still! Nate has a lot to learn about the city, Broadway, and himself as opening night draws near. When an accident threatens to doom the show before it even opens, can Nate save the day?

This book is just as charming, funny, and heartwarming as its predecessor. Read that book first, then move right on to this one! I also recommend the audio version, which is read by the author. Federle does a great job of conveying Nate's youthful enthusiasm.

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire by Kristin Cashore is a reread for me -- this time, I listened to the audiobook.

In the kingdom of the Dells, there are normal creatures, and there are monsters. These monsters are lovely things, rainbow-hued versions of normal animals, but they have a horrifying ability to control the minds of others. Fire is the last human monster. She is determined to be the last, because her father was a true horror, nearly destroying the kingdom with his manipulations of the king. Even now, two years after his death, his legacy lives on in a splintered kingdom that could fall apart at any moment. Fire is not like her father, and she will never have children because she fears the power they could wield. In an attempt to help mend the country, Fire leaves her secluded country home and travels to the king's city. The voyage is perilous, and the city even more so. Fire finds herself caught between the king, who is extremely susceptible to her power, and his brother Brigan, who holds her in distrust because of her father's deeds. Warlords in various parts of the country are threatening attack, and Fire's powers can be useful in spying and interrogation, but she must decide what her limits are, and then hold fast to them even when others disapprove. Into this fraught situation comes a boy, one with strange powers and mismatched eyes. Is he a threat? Fire must find out the truth.

This book is a prequel to Graceling, but stands on its own well enough that I did not feel the need to go back and reread that book either before or after reading Fire. I don't like Fire quite as much as I like Graceling, but I found myself liking it better than I did after this reread. Part of that may be due to a skilled narrator -- I thought the narration in this audiobook was particularly well done -- and part may be due to balanced expectations this time around. The first time, I think I was always wishing for it to be a sequel to Graceling, rather than a companion work. I do think there are some pacing issues, particularly in the second half of the book, and Fire is not as compelling a character as Katsa in my opinion. However, the book's strengths far outweigh those few weaknesses, making it an enjoyable read for fantasy fans.

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman is a summer camp story with a mystical, paranormal twist.

Dahlia would rather be at math camp. Or magic camp -- she'd really, really rather be at magic camp, practicing her sleight-of-hand with other kids who don't think card tricks are dorky. But she made a deal with her parents: one session at Camp Arava, socializing with other kids who share her Jewish heritage, in exchange for a week at magic camp later in the summer. Dahlia resigns herself to nature hikes and mosquito bites. But almost as soon as Dahlia arrives at Camp Arava, strange things begin to happen. She sees two little girls in old-fashioned clothing who seem to disappear into the side of her cabin -- a trick she knows requires lots of special preparation. There's also a surly caretaker, an overgrown hedge maze, and a spooky legend about a man who once lived on the land where the camp was built. All of these bits and pieces seem connected somehow to David Schank, a rabbinical student from nearly 80 years ago, who may have stumbled over a powerful secret in his studies of Kabbalah -- a secret which put him in terrible danger. As Dahlia learns more about what Schank discovered, will she find herself in danger, too?

This impressive first novel manages to be creepy and fascinating. Dahlia's grumpy and begrudging attitude toward camp reads authentically for a kid her age, and many of the secondary characters are likewise distinct and interesting. The mystery is not too easy to solve, and the paranormal elements are genuinely spooky, though not overpoweringly so. Definitely recommended for readers who enjoy this sort of story.

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