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.)