Saturday, November 7, 2015

When We Wake by Karen Healey

When We Wake by Karen Healey is a fast-paced sci-fi novel featuring a girl brought back from the dead.

Tegan died from a stray bullet at a political rally, and woke up a hundred years later. Her body had been frozen and donated to science, and now science has advanced far enough to make such feats of cryogenics possible. Tegan is part of a high-profile government project. She's told that discoveries related to her reawakening will be used to help wounded military, and as the daughter of a fallen serviceman, she's glad to be part of that effort. The problem is, Tegan isn't being told the truth about the project -- and when she goes poking around to learn more, she could put herself and the few new friends she's made in terrible danger.

This is a fast-paced story with a good balance of action and depth. Some readers may find the ending a little unsatisfactory, but it is the beginning of a series, so any dangling threads should be picked up in the next book.

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

Friday, November 6, 2015

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate is an imaginary friend story that deals with some serious real-life issues.

Back when he was six, Jackson had an imaginary friend named Crenshaw, an enormous black and white cat. That was when his family was going through a rough time, living out of their minivan. Now, at the end of his fourth-grade year, it looks like those bad times may be returning as his family falls behind in the rent and holds a big yard sale in hopes of paying off some bills. Jackson is too old for an imaginary friend, and way too serious for one -- but nevertheless, Crenshaw is back. Can he help Jackson process the issues his family faces?

First of all, the good: I really liked the family dynamics portrayed in this book. Jackson's family is loving but flawed, and that comes across well in the writing. On the other hand, for a book dealing with such weighty issues, this one felt slight to me, not as meaty and satisfying as it could have been. Part of the issue was, I think, that so much of the book is spent describing the past, when I wanted to see more of the present. All in all, a fairly good read if you are interested in this sort of book, but it doesn't pack the same emotional punch as Applegate's Newbery winner, The One and Only Ivan.

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz is an exceptionally good work of historical fiction and definitely one of my top five reads so far this year.

It's 1911, and Joan is desperate for a better life. Ever since her mother died, she has been responsible for all of the "women's work" at Steeple Farm, and now that she's 14, her father expects her to leave school and work all the harder. Joan sees no end to the drudgery, and when a standoff with her father results in the burning of her few, prized books, she determines to run away. In Baltimore, Joan hopes to find work as a hired girl -- she may have to work just as hard as she would back on the farm, but she might make as much as six dollars a week! Of course, things don't go as smoothly as she might have hoped, and she finds herself in Baltimore after dark, alone and scared after a run-in with a man who means her no good. She's hesitant to trust another stranger when she's approached by gentle Solomon Rosenbach, who takes Joan home to meet his mother. The upshot of this encounter is that Joan, a devout Catholic girl, finds herself in the employ of the Jewish Rosenbachs. In the months that follow, Joan learns a great deal about the world, religion, love, and herself. She makes mistakes and learns from them, sees things she'd never dreamed about back on the farm, and develops a terrible crush on David Rosenbach, Solomon's younger brother! She also lies about her age, a falsehood that troubles her greatly -- but if the Rosenbachs knew she was just 14, would they send her back to her father?

I can hardly do this book justice in a review. I've heard it described as a modern classic, and I have to concur. Joan's naivete, her struggles to better herself, her foibles and insights, all ring so true and clear. I'm reminded of favorites like Anne of Green Gables. Schlitz's handling of religion in the story is impressive. The secondary characters, setting, plot -- oh, everything about this book is just so good! This is one of my rare five-star reads -- highly recommended!

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Valiant by Sarah McGuire

Valiant by Sarah McGuire is a retelling of "The Brave Little Tailor" with plenty of heart.

Saville has a complicated relationship with her father, the tailor. He's always loved his craft more than he loves her -- if, indeed, he loves her at all. Now he is determined to travel to the big city and ply his trade for the court, or maybe even the king. Saville doesn't doubt that he's talented enough to do it -- but she hates leaving her mother's grave and everything she has ever known in order to pursue her father's dream. Shortly after their arrival in the city, the tailor is struck with a sudden illness. He can neither speak nor sew, and it's up to Saville to provide for both of them. Though she doesn't love sewing, she is nearly as good at it as her father is. She decides to dress as a boy and pass herself off as the tailor's apprentice, and she even manages to gain a commission from the king. But then the giants arrive. . . .

I love fairy tale retellings, and this is one I don't think I've seen done before. McGuire shows a skillful hand at stitching together all of the elements in the old tale to fashion a full, vibrant novel. I was never quite sold on the romance, but the romantic portion of the plot is so slight that enjoyment of the book doesn't hinge on that aspect. All in all, a promising debut!

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is the realization of the fantasy world that the main character in Fangirl writes about.

It's Simon Snow's last year at Watford, the school of Magick that is more of a home to him than any of the orphanages and foster homes where he grew up. Nothing is going according to plan, though -- the Insidious Humdrum is causing havoc all over Britain, but the Mage is strangely absent and preoccupied. Simon has had a fight with his girlfriend, and Baz, Simon's evil vampire roommate, hasn't even shown up for the start of term. Simon's need to know what Baz is up to pretty much amounts to a fixation -- who knew he could be even more irritating in absence than when present? And of course, what Simon should really be worrying about is the Insidious Humdrum, who can suck a region dry of magic, and who recently appeared in the guise of Simon himself as a young boy. Why is the Humdrum wearing Simon's face, and does the Mage have any plans to stop the Humdrum from stealing magic?

If you've read Fangirl, you know that in that universe the Simon Snow series is an eight-book fantasy epic much like Harry Potter, and Carry On, Simon is the massive slash fanfic written by Cath, the main character in Fangirl -- an alternate ending to the series. Of course, in our world, none of that exists, except now we have Carry On, which is probably not exactly what Cath would write, but closer to Cath's version of events than to Gemma T. Doyle's. (If you haven't read Fangirl, you're probably pretty confused by now. Sorry.) Basically, assume there have already been seven books about the adventures of Simon Snow, his best friend Penelope, his girlfriend Agatha, and his nemesis/roommate Baz. Except, of course, there haven't, so Rowell has to include some backstory that readers of the nonexistent series would already know about, which she does skillfully.

I went into this book with trepidation: due to the factors I attempted to explain in the preceding paragraph, the concept of Carry On sounded to me like Rowell was basically writing her own fanfiction. Plus, everything she's published until now has been pretty well grounded in reality (magical phone lines to the past notwithstanding). I shouldn't have worried. If anyone can pull off this crazy concept, it's Rainbow Rowell. Reading this book felt a little bit like reading Deathly Hallows again for the first time -- not because of any similarities in plot, but because she really captured the feeling of a long-awaited final book, even though the earlier books don't technically exist. Carry On lovingly (and obliquely) pokes at some of the weaknesses of Harry Potter without ever becoming too harshly critical.

And of course, Carry On is a fantastic story in its own right, with a carefully developed system of magic, elaborately imagined setting, and a plot that builds to a dramatic and surprising conclusion. I found the whole thing surprisingly gripping.

Can you read this book without having read Fangirl? Probably, but I wouldn't recommend it. Though the plot is entirely independent of Fangirl, the characters and relationships are introduced there in a way that primes the reader for greater enjoyment of Carry On. But if you're a fan of Fangirl and have been feeling some trepidation about Carry On, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock is young adult realistic fiction with a heroine who is learning to be strong.

Last year, the mean girls picked on Celia, but this year she has decided to be Dark. Celia the Dark doesn't let anyone push her around, and she's determined to come up with a brilliant, poetic plan for revenge on the girls who bullied her. Of course, dealing with bullying and social ostracism isn't as simple as all that, and when you throw in complications like parents going through a separation that might end in divorce, and a new friend who is just coming out of the closet -- well, it all adds up to quite a year for Celia. Will her Dark outlook see her through?

Going in, I expected this book to dish out the teenage angst, and it does -- but what I didn't expect was that it would also be sweet and sometimes funny. Finneyfrock creates great, pitch-perfect teenage characters, but she's also able to pull out a bit of the ridiculous nature of high school (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off, for comparison). Enjoyable all the way through; this is an author I'll be sure to watch!

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tides by Betsy Cornwell

Tides by Betsy Cornwell is a modern selkie story.

Noah has been looking forward to this summer ever since he got the news that he'd won the internship he wanted. Now he and his younger sister Lo are staying with their grandmother in her island home while Noah works at a marine research facility. He's initially disappointed when he's assigned the task of organizing a room full of files, but surely his boss will soon see his potential and give him more challenging work. And then he meets Mara, a lovely and mysterious girl who seems hesitant to let Noah get close to her. She has a secret -- and she isn't the only one. Little does Noah know, but secrets run as deep as the ocean in his grandmother's island community, and some of them are dark and dangerous, as well.

I found this a complex story that handles difficult issues without dishing out pat solutions. The lore is interesting, though I found the plot and pacing just average. Still, worth reading if this type of book appeals to you!

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A School for Brides by Patrice Kindl

A School for Brides by Patrice Kindl is a witty Regency story set at a finishing school.

The young ladies of the Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy have a problem: though they are enrolled at a finishing school which should provide them with the necessary polish for marriage, matrimonial prospects are few and far between in the sleepy little town where the school is located. How will they ever find husbands when they are stuck in an out-of-the-way corner of Yorkshire? Fortunately, where there is a will, there is a way -- and will is something that none of these young ladies lacks!

Here's a story just as much fun as Keeping the Castle, Kindl's last foray into the Regency genre. In fact, some of the characters from that book make cameo appearances in this one, but readers unfamiliar with Kindl's earlier work do not particularly need to worry about catching up, as this title stands alone admirably. The characters are fun, the shenanigans amusing, the romances sweet, and the general tone as light as a good sponge cake. Fans of historical romance are sure to enjoy this one.

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Pountry Farmer by Kelly Jones

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones is a delightful tale of magic and poultry.

Sophie's not super excited about moving to the farm her father inherited from a great-uncle, but if she's going to live in the country, at least she can have some chickens, right? And then the chickens start showing up on their own, identified by the neighbors as birds that used to belong to Great-Uncle Jim. But these chickens have some . . . interesting . . . abilities. And it turns out that Sophie is not the only one who wants these chickens. Where are the chickens coming from -- and who is trying to take them away?

This book, written in epistolary style, is just as fun and quirky as you might expect from the title. I, too, had chickens when I was Sophie's age (though mine were just ordinary ones) so that might have influenced me somewhat in favor of this book, but I believe country folks and city dwellers alike will find this story charming.

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley is juvenile fiction set during World War II, and possibly one of the best children's books I've read all year.

Ten-year-old Ada has never left her family's London apartment. Her mother is ashamed of Ada's club foot and refuses to let her appear in public. When Ada's little brother Jamie comes home from school with the news that children in London are being evacuated to the countryside because of the danger of bombings, Ada hatches a daring plan: she knows her mother would not give her permission to go, but what if she were to go anyway? She sneaks out with Jamie on the morning the children are to leave, and just like that, enters what might as well be another world. In the country, Jamie and Ada are placed with Susan, a spinster who did not intend to take in children. Slowly, Ada and Jamie learn to trust Susan, and Susan learns to care for, and even love, the children. But what will happen when the war ends and Ada and Jamie must return to London?

This book has a multitude of strengths (plot, pacing, setting to name a few) but the characters are what make it really stand out. Each of the three main characters has a distinct and beautifully rendered emotional journey as the story progresses, and I was completely wrapped up in their lives while reading. I would not be surprised to see it garner some accolades when awards are handed out this winter!

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown is a graphic novel depicting Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans. This is a gripping and sobering read, well-researched and well-drawn. For those of us who remember watching this disaster unfold on the evening news, it's hard to believe it was ten years ago (and no doubt, for the residents of New Orleans and the gulf shore, it's even more omnipresent). However, this book does an excellent job of making the tragedy real and immediate to young readers who don't have any clear memories of those events.

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson is a delightful graphic novel about an evil villain's unconventional sidekick.

Ballister Blackheart doesn't need a sidekick, so he's none too pleased when he comes home and finds one, Nimona, making herself at home in his lair. Nimona convinces him that she could be useful to his plots -- she is a shapeshifter, after all. Together, they can take down the Institute, an organization that Ballister believes is not as benevolent as everyone has been led to suppose. However, he and Nimona have some slight differences of opinion as to correct tactics for achieving their goals . . .

I'm not always a big fan of the graphic novel, but this is the best one I've read in some time. The characters are so delightfully complex, the worldbuilding is so fascinating, and there's such great humor in the story. Highly recommended to graphic novel fans, fantasy readers, and just about anyone, really.

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Gabby Duran and the Unsittables by Elise Allen and Daryle Conners

Gabby Duran and the Unsittables by Elise Allen and Daryle Conners is a wacky story about a girl with out of this world babysitting skills.

Gabby Duran has never shied away from challenging clients. She may be only 12, but she has the creativity and composure to deal with the most mischievous or obstinate child, and her babysitting business is booming. In fact, her skills draw the attention of some highly unusual clients: aliens. Gabby's career is about to be launched in a whole new direction. If she's successful the rewards could be huge, enough to put her through college and set her entire family on stable financial footing -- but if she fails, the consequences could be, well, cosmic.

I had so much fun reading this book. It's a light, quick read, packed with the sort of humor that will delight young readers. I'm hoping that this is just the first of many adventures for Gabby Duran!

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes by Louis Sachar is a modern children's classic and a Newbery medal winner.

Camp Green Lake is a juvenile detention facility where there is neither a lake nor any greenery. Stanley Yelnats is sent there when he is accused of a crime he didn't commit. He blames his great-great-grandfather for his bad luck -- ever since that ancestor's pig-stealing incident, all of his family has been unlucky. At Camp Green Lake, the Warden has the boys go out in the wasteland where a lake once was and dig holes. Perhaps the Warden thinks this will build character -- or perhaps there's some other motive. . . .

Part mystery, part adventure story, with a secondary historical narrative woven through, Holes really is a triumph of a book. The plot is tight, the characters are nuanced, the setting is detailed. I'd recommend this to anyone who has an interest in juvenile fiction, but I'd also recommend it to anyone who has a low opinion of children's books -- this is the sort of book that might change your mind!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley is a charming story featuring a mysterious and magical circus.

Micah doesn't want to believe that his grandpa Ephraim is dying, but in his heart, he knows it's true. All his life, Micah has listened to, and believed in, his grandfather's stories about the magical Circus Mirandus and the enigmatic Lightbender. Once upon a time, the Lightbender promised Grandpa Ephraim a miracle . . . and Micah thinks that now would be the perfect time to call in that promise. But how can Micah find the circus before it's too late -- and even if he does, is the Lightbender powerful enough to save Grandpa Ephraim's life?

This charming story touches on so many themes: the power of belief, the bonds of familial love and friendship, courage in the face of adversity. I'd have loved to see more of the circus, and on reflection I think some of the characters may be a bit flat, but this is still an exceptionally good read and an impressive debut from a talented and promising author.

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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy is the conclusion of a rollicking adventure series.

The members of the League of Princes are in a bad situation: they are accused of the murder of Briar Rose. Now, the dashing princes must go to great lengths to clear their names, and to undermine yet another nefarious plot by a villain bent on world domination. It's their greatest challenge yet -- can they overcome it? Also, pirates.

This is the third book in a trilogy, so of course it's a bad place to start if you are unfamiliar with the series. However, for series fans, this action-packed laugh-fest delivers a satisfying conclusion. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Bronson Pinchot. He does exaggerated and distinctive voices for each character, which would not work for more serious literature, but suits this sort of novel well. It's a fun book and a fun series, and I'll be interested to see what the author does next, now that the League of Princes have attained their happily ever after.

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

Friday, October 2, 2015

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty is a spooky novel set in a grand location.

Years ago, Serafina's father helped build the Biltmore mansion. The house has many secrets -- and Serafina is one of them. She sleeps most of the day and prowls the house at night, catching rats and observing the midnight life of the house. She does not, however, venture into the woods surrounding the estate, because her father has often warned her of the many dangers that lurk there. But when danger comes to Biltmore, Serafina may be the only one who can stop it -- if she is brave and daring and willing to move beyond the confines of her hidden life.

This book has fascinating notes of mystery and suspense. It's definitely on the creepy side, though it has its moments of sweetness as well. The atmosphere and setting are the best parts of the book -- while the plot is also fairly good, I thought the characterization faltered in spots. But it's still an enjoyable read, one that will appeal to kids who enjoy books like The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier and Doll Bones by Holly Black.

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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon

The Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon is a folksy tale of two youngsters on a runaway road trip.

When Ivy's mother up and runs away with a traveling preacher named Hallelujah Dave from the Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle, Florida, Ivy doesn't know what to make of it. Why would her mother leave? Why does her father not try harder to get her to come back? In the midst of all her worry, an unexpected friendship springs up between Ivy and science nerd Paul, who is mourning the death of the space shuttle program. The two hatch up a scheme to go to Florida and find Ivy's mother (and maybe pay a visit to Kennedy Space Center as well). Of course, things don't go exactly as planned. . . .

I liked this book well enough, but did not love it. I know it's intended as contemporary (aside from the definite, anchoring detail about the end of the space shuttle program, there were cell phones and such), but I kept having to remind myself that this was not historical fiction set in the sixties or seventies. I can't exactly put my finger on why this was, but it puzzled and annoyed me throughout the book. Maybe it's just me? I also found Ivy very similar to other feisty young girls in this sort of book; she doesn't stand out as a distinct character in my mind. Again, I'm jaded when it comes to books with a folksy southern tone like this one has, so I can see others enjoying this book more than I did -- in the end, I think it's just not my cup of tea.

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

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan is the first book in a new series rooted in Norse mythology.  This book will be released on October 6th, 2015.

Magnus Chase has been on his own since his mom died, living on the streets of Boston.  When his homeless buddies tell him that his uncle is looking for him, Magnus knows he's in trouble.  Soon, he finds himself in an action-packed chase-and-fight sequence that results in his death.  Now, usually it's not a good thing when a book's hero dies less than 50 pages into the story -- but Magnus has previously unsuspected ties to Norse mythology, so when he dies heroically, a Valkyrie whisks him away to Valhalla, where he joins the hordes of heroes awaiting Ragnarok.  There's just one problem: Magnus has some unfinished business on Earth.  Could it be that he's one hero that Valhalla just can't hold?

To me, this book feels like a return to Riordan's strengths.  While I enjoyed the Heroes of Olympus series, it did have some weaknesses -- particularly when it came to the sheer number of point-of-view characters.  This book zeros back in on a single first-person perspective (a friend who also read the book refers to Magnus as "an older, rougher Percy Jackson," and I think that sums him up pretty well, though there's still nothing content-wise to discomfit upper-elementary and middle-school readers).  Riordan also brings back the witty chapter titles that will have some readers (or at least this one) snorting with laughter at times.  The pace is a breakneck as ever, with the usual assortment of monsters and villains, just from further north this time.  Riordan works his usual magic with the mythology, seamlessly blending it into the modern world with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor to hold everything together.  There are also a few sly references to Riordan's earlier works, not to mention a cameo appearance by a certain other Chase -- readers who haven't encountered those earlier books won't feel lost, but Riordan's fans will love those little inside jokes.  Bottom line: if you like Riordan's style, you'll definitely like this book -- and if you've never picked up the others, you can start here without worrying about what you've missed in earlier books. 

The only problem with reading an advance copy: it makes my wait for Book 2 that much longer!  Don't you feel sorry for me? . . . Nah, I didn't think so!

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson is the first book in a new series by a talented author.

When Leah Westfall finds herself alone in the world and subject to the devious machinations of a greedy uncle, she does what thousands of others are doing: she goes west. Gold has been discovered in California, and the gold fever has struck the general public hard. Disguising herself as a boy, "Lee" makes her way up the Mississippi to Independence and finds a wagon train to join. There will be plenty of hardships over the next months, and not all of Lee's companions will make it to their destination. For Lee the stakes are high, because she's hiding not one, but two secrets: not only is she a girl dressed as a boy, but she also has the magical ability to sense gold hidden in the ground. And the only person who knows is her uncle -- the man who will stop at nothing to bring Lee back under his control.

This is a highly enjoyable story, rich in historical detail and character development. Carson doesn't pull her punches: readers will get quite attached to some characters who won't make it to the end of the book. Despite (or because of?) that, this is a great read, especially for those who have an interest in historical fiction set in this period. People I'd recommend it to: fans of this author, people who enjoyed Patricia C. Wrede's Frontier Magic trilogy, and everyone with a nostalgic fondness for Oregon Trail.

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

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead is an excellent story of middle-school friendship.

Bridget, Tabitha, and Emily have been best friends forever, but middle school will try their friendship in new ways. Bridge has made a new friend, Sherm. She doesn't think she's in love with him, but is it possible to fall in friendship just as powerfully as you fall in love? Tab has discovered feminism, thanks to an inspirational teacher, but she's about to be reminded that she still doesn't know everything. And Em has developed a figure that is getting attention from boys -- including a certain boy, who wants her to send him a certain kind of photo. Meanwhile, in another story line, an unnamed high school girl deals with betrayal and disillusionment in her own friendships.

This book is a really excellent middle-school book, which is actually comparatively rare. The characters act in ways consistent with actual middle-schoolers, and deal with issues that face middle-schoolers, and while the issues are addressed frankly, they never venture out of the middle-school realm. And of course, since it's Rebecca Stead, the writing is generally excellent and the characters are distinct and develop over the course of the story. Recommended both to the target audience and to anyone who enjoys well-written juvenile fiction.

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

Friday, August 21, 2015

Massive Mini-Review Catch-Up

I'm so far behind, you guys.  It's ridiculous.  So, while I still have a short stack of really excellent books that will get full review treatment, these books (ranging from okay to very good) get briefer consideration.  Better than nothing, right?

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson features a trio of young misfits on an adventure in deep space. I liked the story well enough, but the artwork is what really sells this book. Recommended for graphic novel fans. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm describes Sunny's adventures at her grandfather's retirement complex while she comes to terms with some of the serious things that have happened in her family over the past year. This gently realistic story will appeal to readers who enjoy Raina Telgemeier's books. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb is the story of Flor and the tiny island where she lives. When Flor's best friend is sent away to school on the mainland, Flor discovers various secrets about her friend, her family, her island, and herself. This is a sweet and well-written story, and I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy realistic juvenile fiction focusing on friendship and family issues, as well as anyone who likes to keep an eye on possible award contenders, as I imagine this book will crop up in discussions of noteworthy titles this fall. (Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus is a mystery set on a remote lake shore. Quirky characters abound as 17-year-old Francie (who isn't a detective, but played one on TV once) tries to discover if someone really is bumping off members of her great-aunts' neighborhood. This fun story will appeal to readers who enjoy (or are nostalgic for) Nancy Drew and her ilk. (Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

 Forget-Me-Not Summer by Leila Howland is the story of three California sisters spending part of their summer vacation on Cape Cod. For me, this book didn't quite measure up to other tales of summer and sisterhood (the most obvious comparison is The Penderwicks, and nothing's going to measure up to that, I'm afraid). I found the characters annoying -- Marigold was too snotty, Zinnia was too needy, and Lily was too bratty for any of them to engage my sympathies. That's not to say that this book didn't have its pleasant moments, and I think kids who can't get enough of this sort of gentle, realistic family story will gobble it up -- but it just wasn't the book for me. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen is a suspenseful story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall. Gerta's father and one of her brothers were on the western side of Berlin the night the wall went up, and now she, her mother, and her other brother are trapped in a restrictive regime where any neighbor or co-worker might be reporting to the authorities. Gerta would do anything to be reunited with her father, but if she and her family are caught trying to escape, it could cost them their lives. I've read several of this author's fantasy books, and was curious how she would do in a different genre. The results are excellent: this is a fascinating, gripping read that will definitely appeal to fans of historical fiction as well as fans of Nielsen's earlier works. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Dumplin' by Julie Murphy is a tale of beauty pageants and body image, among other things. Willowdean has always been okay with her plus-size figure, but a secret romance with a co-worker has shaken her self-confidence. She doesn't want her size to hold her back from living her life, so she decides to make a statement by entering the local beatuty pageant -- the one that her mother won as a teen, and has been involved in organizing pretty much ever since. What Willowdean doesn't expect is that other nontraditional pageant contestants will rally around her. She also doesn't expect the pageant to come between her and her long-time best friend. Though it contains more strong language than I generally appreciate, this is a great YA read with complex characters, plenty of humor, and a solid plot -- recommended. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 Third Grade Angels by Jerry Spinelli is a prequel to Fourth Grade Rats. In this book, Suds tries to be the best student in the class and win his teacher's approval, but he finds that being good is harder than he expected. I'm sure this book will be enjoyed by its target audience, though there's not much depth here for the adult reader. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

 The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore is a juvenile historical novel. Hazel is the daughter of the town's graveyard caretakers, and a bit of a quirky outsider. She's convinced that there are Communist spies somewhere in their small town -- maybe right under her nose! But when she befriends Samuel, a newcomer who may be the only kid in town even odder than Hazel, she learns that compassion and friendship may be more important than being right about everything. I enjoyed this read, though I'm not sure how well some parts of the story will work for young readers with no prior knowledge of the McCarthy era. For kids, this may be one of those books best suited to a classroom setting. (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Winterling by Sarah Prineas is the first book in a juvenile fantasy trilogy. Jennifer, who has always felt as if she doesn't fit in, is drawn through a portal to the land of Faerie, where her parents disappeared years ago, and where an evil queen rules in place of the true Lady of the realm. Something about this book just didn't click, for me -- I think the characterization could be stronger. I wanted to like it, but I probably won't continue with this series. (Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge is an imaginative retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood." Rachelle stepped off the path, and now she must pay the price. Her aunt had been training her to be a woodwife, but now Rachelle is Bloodbound, one of the king's trained killers, doomed to eventually join the heartless Forestborn. But until then, she works as hard as she can to fend off the Destroyer. That mission is thrown off track, however, when the king assigns her to be a bodyguard to one of his sons. I really liked Cruel Beauty, Hodge's first book, but I didn't like this one quite as much. Part of it could be that I've never loved Red Riding Hood, part of it could be that there was a lot of religious weirdness in this story that just didn't work for me, and part of it could be that I didn't find the love triangle very convincing or appealing. That makes it sound like I really hated this book, and I didn't -- I think that other readers might enjoy it more than I did, but I still read the whole thing in a couple of days. It's not a favorite, but I'll still be keeping an eye out for other fairy tale retellings by this author.  (Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Paperboy by Vince Vawter is the story of a shy, stuttering boy who makes new friends -- and enemies -- when he takes over a friend's paper route for a month during one hot Memphis summer. I listened to the audiobook, which was well done, though this book is not the fast-moving sort that makes for an exciting listen. Still, it kept me engaged with its excellent atmosphere and depth of characterization. I can see why the Newbery committee deemed it worthy of an honor. (Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other) by Geoff Rodkey is a funny tale of sibling rivalry and an escalating practical joke war. I listened to the audiobook and the narration was well done by a team of voice actors, which made it easy to differentiate between characters. I can see this as a good choice for family listening, on a long car trip, for example. (Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

 To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han is a fun romance that starts out with an embarrassing mishap. When Lara Jean wrote those letters to her former crushes, she never intended for them to be read by anyone but herself. When the letters are somehow mailed out, chaos ensues. This is a nice, light, and fluffy YA romance, but the best part of the book is the relationship between the three sisters. (Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston is a compelling fantasy in a desert setting.

Lo-Melkhiin went hunting in the desert one day, and he came back changed. The powerful young ruler now has something cold and calculating at his heart, and though he is still fair, he is no longer beloved. How could he be, when he has killed hundreds of brides and seems to have an insatiable appetite for more? When he comes to the tents of this book's nameless heroine, she bravely steps forward to save her beloved, beautiful sister. She expects to die like all the others, but she finds that she can survive one day at a time -- thanks, perhaps, to her words and stories, which seem to have a mysterious power that they never had before. Can she use them save Lo-Melkhiin and his people from a powerful force of evil?

I loved the sense of mystery and the wealth of authentic detail in this book. I have not run across many retellings of The Thousand and One Nights, and this one is particularly skillfully written. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

(Reviewed from an e-galley, courtesy of the publisher.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai is a lush story of family and heritage.

Mai has her summer all planned out: hanging out at Laguna Beach with her friends, flirting with that cute boy she's been eying. Then her parents inform her that she is going to spend the summer traveling to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is seeking closure in regards to her husband, Mai's grandfather, who disappeared during the war. This will also give Mai a chance to get in touch with her own cultural heritage, her parents add. Mai feels that she is in touch with her heritage just fine, and has no need to spend a summer far from California to explore it. Couldn't one of her parents accompany her grandmother? But her mother, a lawyer, has a busy summer slated at work, and her father, a doctor, will travel with them to Vietnam, but will then continue to more remote villages to perform surgeries and other procedures for people who could otherwise never afford them. And so it is that Mai finds herself in Vietnam, having a far different summer than the one she had planned, and yes, getting in touch with her roots. But finding out the truth about what happened to her grandfather all those years ago will take more work than Mai could have imagined.

Thanhha Lai's masterful use of language has already been established for those who have read her earlier verse novel Inside Out and Back Again. I was surprised to see that Listen, Slowly is prose, not verse, but not surprised that it exhibits the same level of linguistic virtuosity. Lai's multifaceted characters come to life against the rich backdrop of modern Vietnam. With touches of pathos and splashes of humor, this book tells the story of a journey of discovery for Mai, as well as for her grandmother. Mai's character development is the real heart of the story as she learns to truly appreciate her heritage. Highly recommended.

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Out from Boneville by Jeff Smith

Out from Boneville by Jeff Smith is the first installment of Bone, a classic graphic novel series.

When cousins Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone are driven out of Boneville by an irate populace (Phoney's been up to his usual tricks again), they find themselves lost in an unmapped desert. Separated by a storm, the three eventually find themselves in a strange new land, replete with its own dangers and rewards. But will the three cousins ever be reunited?

I've been reading a fair number of graphic novels lately, but I don't think I will ever love them the way I do traditional books. I can see the distinguished points in this book -- it has humor, good characters, strong plot, nice artwork -- but it didn't grip me the way it has obviously gripped so many others. Obviously, this is a reader problem, not a book problem, so if you like graphic novels and have not yet explored this series, you probably ought to look in to that.

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway

Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway is a sweet romance set in the aftermath of a kidnapping.

One of the defining events of Emmy's life was ten years ago, in second grade, when her best friend and next-door neighbor Oliver went to his father's house for the weekend . . . and never came back. After the kidnapping, Emmy's parents became smothering and overprotective, and of course Oliver's mother fell apart. And then, life went on. Emmy always wondered about her friend, where he might be, what might have happened to him, and whether he ever thought of her the way she was thinking of him. And now, Oliver is back. Those ten missing years have turned him into a stranger, but Emmy sometimes sees flashes of her old friend, and she's looking forward to getting to know him again. As the two fumble their way back into a friendship, Emmy can't deny that she's attracted to this grown-up Oliver -- but Oliver is still working through a lot of issues regarding his feelings for both of his parents. Is a romance between Emmy and Oliver really a good idea?

I found this a highly enjoyable read. The characters are great and the plot is interesting without being too farfetched. I'd recommend this to fans of YA realistic fiction.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith

Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith is . . . weird.

Augie's dad runs Fairy Tale Place, a run-down amusement park, which contributes to the surreal atmosphere of Augie's life. Initially, his struggles seem fairly mundane: summer school, bullies, and crushes. But as the summer progresses, things get stranger and stranger: werewolves, ghosts, and UFOs. Or are all of those things just in Augie's head? Is Augie going crazy -- or is there something more sinister at hand?

This one didn't really work for me -- it was a little too surreal and absurd. I like weird stuff, and it seems like this should have been my sort of book, but it just wasn't. Another reader might enjoy it more than I did.

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine

Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine is the sequel to A Tale of Two Castles.

Elodie, the dragon Masteress Meenore, and the ogre Count Jonty Um are on their way to visit Elodie's home on the island of Lahnt, but before they can reach the farmhouse, they learn that a sacred artifact has been stolen -- and if it's not returned within three days, there's likely to be a volcanic eruption, endangering hundreds of people. Finding missing items is Masteress Meenore's specialty, and as It's apprentice, Elodie has already proven that she has some skills in that area, as well -- but it will take all of the wit and cunning Elodie and her companions can muster in order to discover the thief in time to avert disaster.

This is a solid fantasy with a nice interweaving of mystery. I did not realize that it was a sequel when I picked it up, though I actually read A Tale of Two Castles back when it first came out. It's been a while since then, and my memory of that book is hazy at best, but I didn't feel like I was missing much. So, I'm comfortable in saying that you could read this book as a stand-alone without feeling too lost. It's of a similar quality to other books by the same author -- enjoyable, but not phenomenal. Readers who like other books by Levine will probably like this one, as well.

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir is an exciting YA fantasy debut.

When Laia's brother is captured for spying on the government, she does the only thing she can: she runs. Overwhelmed by guilt, she seeks out the Resistance fighters and begs them to rescue her brother. They will only do so if Laia is willing to take on a dangerous and probably fatal mission. She agrees, and is placed as a slave in the household of the Commandant of Blackcliff Academy. Blackcliff is a strict military academy that churns out the country's leaders -- those it doesn't kill along the way. Elias is one of the fortunate (or strong) few to survive Blackcliff, but despite his years of training, he dreams only of escape. He has his route all planned, and unlike other runaways that he's seen caught and executed over the years, he thinks he can probably make it. Unfortunately for him, the Augurs have other plans. Elias will be one of four graduates to compete in the trials to determine the next emperor. Laia and Elias are both fighting for their lives, in one way or another. What will happen when their paths cross?

I really enjoyed this book -- I found it gripping and well-written, and in many ways original, though it didn't manage to avoid all of the conventions of the genre. I like that Laia is not a typical butt-kicking heroine, and that she does get some nice character development over the course of the story. Elias is equally complex and interesting. Many of the secondary characters are intriguing and well-developed; I'm hoping that we get to hear more about Cook in future volumes of the series, as I have a theory about her. And there will be future volumes; though the book does not end in what I'd term a cliffhanger, it's obvious that the author intends to continue the story. There were a few minor things that didn't work well for me. I found the brutality of life at Blackcliff a bit over-the top; it made for some rather flat villains, much less nuanced than the other characters. I also was rooting for Laia and Elias to not end up romantically involved, since both had another potential love interest, and a YA fantasy without love triangles would be so refreshing. Alas, this is not that book. Still, the romance was a relatively minor aspect of the story, so I don't mind too much. Overall, I liked this book and would recommend it to readers looking for an epic YA fantasy.

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas

A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas is a retelling of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty."

Imagine waking up one day to find that your family is long dead, you've been asleep for a hundred years, and you're now expected to marry the complete stranger who just woke you up by kissing you. That's Aurora's life in a nutshell. While she slept, the kingdom moved on, power changing hands in dramatic and tempestuous ways while Aurora slumbered in the sealed tower, visited only occasionally by princes hoping to wake her with a kiss. Rodric, the one who finally achieves this feat, is the sweet but unexciting son of the current rulers, who plan to use Aurora's waking to solidify their political position. He's not the only prince on hand, though, as Prince Finnegan, heir to a neighboring kingdom, pays a visit to welcome (and flirt with) Aurora. Finnegan is everything Rodric is not: dashing, adventurous, charming. Meanwhile, revolution is brewing among the common people, as Aurora learns when she sneaks out of the castle in disguise. She meets a handsome revolutionary who makes her question the current king's rule and his treatment of the common people. But Aurora is a figurehead, a puppet -- and, thanks to her overprotective parents who locked her up due to her curse, that's all she's ever been. Can she change things by stepping away from the fairy-tale ending with Rodric -- or would she be better off trying to change things by staying with him and working at making things better when she is his queen?

I liked this Sleeping Beauty retelling, but I didn't love it. There's plenty of good stuff in terms of court intrigue, and some of the plot twists did surprise me. On the other hand, I think some readers will find that the pacing lags as Aurora spends a great deal of time trying to decide what to do. In my opinion, this suits her character and her circumstances, but readers looking for a fast and gripping read might disagree. Also, it's obvious from the somewhat inconclusive ending that this will be the first book in a series. Will I read on? Perhaps, if I come across the sequel and I'm in the mood to see what becomes of Aurora. Do I recommend this? Yes, but probably only to established fans of the genre, not to those who are trying out fairy tale retellings for the first time.

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki is a young adult graphic novel that has won some pretty impressive awards.

Every summer, Rose and her parents vacation at Awago Beach. This summer, though, things seem different. The relationship between Rose's parents is strained, as is the relationship between Rose and her mother. And Rose and her best beach friend Windy are discovering a whole new world of adolescence as they discuss fascinating forbidden topics, watch equally fascinating forbidden horror movies, and spy on the even more fascinating older teens in the area. There's some serious drama going down among the local teens, and Rose and Windy have definite opinions about what's going on -- but when the situation turns dangerous, will they find themselves in over their heads?

This graphic novel is gorgeously illustrated and emotionally complex. While it's not exactly my cup of tea, genre-wise, I can see why it has garnered so many honors. The author does a great job of portraying that curious, intense, and occasionally silly stage of early adolescence as Rose and Windy test the tempestuous waters of puberty. Readers who enjoy realistic coming-of-age stories in the graphic novel medium should certainly take a look at this one. Be advised: despite its Caldecott honor, it's not well suited for most children.

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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Jinx's Fire by Sage Blackwood

Jinx's Fire by Sage Blackwood is the conclusion of a delightful fantasy trilogy. This review may contain some slight spoilers for earlier books in the series.

In this book, Jinx finds himself the unwilling leader of the Free Urwald (a country located mostly in and around the wizard Simon's house). Though Jinx himself has powerful magic, he still doesn't know how to wield it in a way that is useful, and meanwhile, three kings threaten the borders of the Urwald and Simon is a magical captive of the Bonemaster. Jinx is probably the only one who can fix everything -- but how?

This is the third book in a trilogy, so obviously it's not going to make a whole lot of sense unless you've read the first two. And if you haven't read the first two, why not? If you like fantasy, you should absolutely be reading this series and looking forward with relish to whatever Sage Blackwood writes next!

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

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier are two graphic memoirs about the author's teen years.

In Smile, middle-schooler Raina is not looking forward to getting braces, but the process is complicated by a painful accident that results in the loss of her front teeth just days before the braces are scheduled to go on. Will her missing teeth and metallic grin spell social disaster?

Sisters focuses on the relationship between Raina and her younger sister, particularly on one long road trip that the girls take with their mother and younger brother. They're on their way to a family reunion, but in many ways these two sisters have never felt further apart. Will their adventures on the road help them learn how to be better sisters to each other?

Both of these books have been popular at my library lately, and I can see how they would appeal to readers, especially those in similar circumstances. I liked Smile slightly better than Sisters, which I felt was a little inconclusive about certain points at the ending, but both were fun, quick reads. I'd better get them back to the library now, as they are in demand!

(Reviewed from copies borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse is a dystopian survival story, but it's probably a lot more low-key than you're expecting from that description.

Radley is doing volunteer work in Haiti when the totalitarian American People's Party gains control of the USA. She catches the first available flight back in order to be with her parents again, but they are not awaiting her arrival at the airport, and the USA she lands in is not the one she remembers from her departure a few months ago. Her cell phone charger is lost, she has no cash on hand and credit cards no longer work, and she doesn't have the proper paperwork to cross the state line in order to get home by bus. When she can't even get in touch with her parents by scrounging coins for a pay phone, Radley decides to set out on foot across New England. She makes the journey to her hometown only to find her house standing empty. There are police and soldiers enforcing curfews -- have her parents been arrested, or did they flee to Canada? Hoping for the latter, Radley sets out once again, this time heading north. Can she stay safe from the military, gangs who attack lone travelers, wild animals, and the elements? And even if she does, where will she go?

This is a dystopia written on a human scale. Radley isn't out to save her country or overthrow the government -- she's just doing the best she can to stay alive and safe, hoping to connect with the people she loves, waiting out the storm. It's probably what most of us would do in similar circumstances. The near-future setting and the focus on the individual makes this an excellent book for readers who enjoy realistic stories of survival. Recommended.

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

Friday, June 26, 2015

From the Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot

From the Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot is a charming spinoff to the author's popular Princess Diaries series.

Olivia Harrison is about to get the surprise of her life. Although, according to one of the mean girls at her school, what she's about to get is the beat-down she deserves, out by the flagpole after school. Just when she's practically seeing her life flash before her eyes, she sees the limo. The one with the princess in it -- Princess Mia, who has just discovered that Olivia is her younger half-sister. That's right: Genovia has another surprise princess. Olivia's journey will be similar to Mia's in some ways, but also quite different (she manages to immediately charm Grandmère and her little dog, too) -- but Olivia's aunt and uncle, who have been responsible for raising her up until the grand revelation, are not going to make the transition easy for anyone, since giving up Olivia will also mean giving up the generous support checks her father has been sending them each month.

I actually only read the first Princess Diaries book -- it was fun, but not so much that I couldn't walk away. But I think I actually like this story better, for one reason or another. Olivia is a fun character, naive and optimistic, a little blunt, but well-intentioned, and a dog lover, which gets points from me as well as Grandmère, apparently. I might even keep up with the series -- but if I do or not, I'll be sure to recommend it to the tween girls it was actually written for!

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a rich and satisfying fairy tale retelling.

Maybe Feyre knew the wolf was a faerie. Maybe she didn't care. But she didn't know that killing it would break the Treaty and that her own life would be forfeit. When a faerie lord comes to avenge the death of one of his kind, Feyre faces him boldly, but rather than killing her, he takes her with him, across the wall to the faerie lands, to his own estate. Feyre's life is forfeit, and she will spend the rest of that life with him. She is treated with a sort of cold kindness in her new home, and she even begins to see some of the beauty of it -- and some of the darkness. A blight creeps across the faerie realm, and her host's once powerful magic is greatly reduced. Feyre finds herself interested in the plight of her captors, and then more than interested in her host, specifically. But she promised on her mother's deathbed to take care of the family, to keep them together -- and if the faerie blight threatens the mortal realms as well, she must return to her father and sisters. It's only when she is home once again that she realizes she may have made a terrible, costly mistake. Can she find a way to make things right?

I've read a lot of Beauty and the Beast retellings, and I generally like them to some extent. But this one, I loved. The author incorporated so many lovely little twists to make the story her own, while still remaining true to the heart of the original tale (or tales, because there's just a faint strain of a second fairy tale woven through it). I particularly like the way things unfold after Feyre returns to the estate, because it doesn't end there -- oh, no, indeed. But I'd hate to give anything away and spoil your enjoyment of this book that I found to be both velvety as a rose petal and sharp as a thorn.

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