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.)