Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hook's Revenge by Heidi Schulz

Hook's Revenge by Heidi Schulz is, as you might have guessed, another Peter Pan spinoff.

Jocelyn Hook's grandfather has never been able to mold her into a proper young lady, so when he decides that the situation is beyond him, he ships her off to boarding school. Between tyrannical teachers and mean-girl students, Jocelyn's life at school is sheer misery. Only two things keep her from complete despair: her friendship with Roger the kitchen boy, and her dream that someday her famous father, Captain James Hook himself, will whisk her away to a life of piracy and adventure. The latter never exactly happens -- instead, Jocelyn learns that her father has been killed by the Neverland Crocodile, and her only inheritance is a quest for vengeance. Jocelyn is to travel to Neverland, assemble a pirate crew, and lead an attack on the foul beast. And, because the headmistress of the boarding school sent Roger away for being too familiar with the students (well, just Jocelyn, really), she'll have to do it without the help of her loyal best friend. But anything is better than boarding school right?

To a young reader who has encountered few Peter Pan spinoffs and maybe only a couple of books about rambunctious girls confined to prim and proper boarding schools, this will be an enjoyable read. I thought the dialogue was uneven: sparkling and witty in some places, but stilted in others. The book is narrated by an irascible old pirate whose identity is never explicitly divulged (this bothered me a little; I thought there were hints in the text and was disappointed when they came to nothing in the end). There's plenty of humor, action, and adventure, but I didn't find this a can't-put-it-down read for all that. I can't quite put my finger on what it is about this story that just didn't work for this jaded adult reader, but I'd recommend it only for young readers or truly fanatical Peter Pan enthusiasts. While this book ends conclusively, there are also a few hints that this may be only the first of Jocelyn's adventures -- but it's unlikely that I'll be sailing with her in the future.

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman is the long-awaited sequel to Seraphina. This review may contain some minor spoilers for Seraphina, so if my earlier review didn't drive you to pick that book up right away, you may want to skip reading this review until you do!

War is coming, and Seraphina and her fellow half-dragons may be the key to Goredd's survival. Seraphina, with her mental connection to the others, is the obvious person to draw them all together, but to do so she will have to travel through Nimys, Samsam, and Porphyry -- and she will face unique dangers in each location. Even more dangerous, however, is the one half-dragon Seraphina is not willing to face: devious Jannoula, who once betrayed Seraphina within the bounds of her own mind. If Jannoula finds out what Seraphina is doing, there's no doubt that she will try to cause trouble, but Jannoula is safely imprisoned . . . or is she?

I love this series so very much. Seraphina is a strong heroine, but her strength is primarily mental, and it's extraordinarily valuable as such. In this book, we see a great deal of character development for Seraphina as she faces her own biases and motivations for gathering her fellow half-dragons, and as she faces her history with and fears of Jannoula. And let me just say, Jannoula is one of the most chilling villains I've ever run across! The slow-burning romance that began in the last book continues to build, coming to a satisfying and surprising conclusion by the end of the book. That conclusion does tie up most of the loose ends, leaving just a few tantalizing details that may be explored in future books (the author has stated that she will write more books in that world, but they will focus on different main characters). So, if you were waiting to start this series, now is a good time to do so, as these two books make for a rich and satisfying read.
(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Fish in a Tree by Linda Hunt

Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt is the story of one girl's struggle to overcome her learning disability.

Ally's got a bit of a reputation as a class clown and occasional troublemaker. She's good with numbers and art, but has trouble reading because of the way the letters seem to move on the page. She makes her difficulties into a joke, and she's fooled a lot of teachers so far. But when Mr. Daniels, a long-term sub, takes over for her regular teacher, he sees Ally's smart, creative side in a way that nobody else ever has. Over time, Mr. Daniels helps Ally overcome her difficulties while celebrating her unique skills and talents.

This book falls firmly into the category of "inspirational teacher story," as you can see from the summary above. There aren't a huge number of novels featuring dyslexic protagonists out there, so there's some value in that. I was displeased to find that this book perpetuates the "Einstein did poorly in school" urban legend that's been pretty well debunked; I thought the book would have been better served if the author had used a less controversial example of a famous person who struggled with academics. On the other hand, Ally's voice is smart and funny, and that made for an enjoyable read.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Etruscan Time by Tracy Barrett

On Etruscan Time by Tracy Barrett is a story of archaeology and time travel.

Hector is not excited about accompanying his mother to Italy for an archaeological dig -- he'd rather be hanging out with his friends all summer, sleeping until noon, playing video games, and going to the pool. But he can't help but be interested in the dig site, especially when one archaeologist encourages him to help out, showing him how to excavate in a practice area that's not part of the official dig site. When Hector discovers an eye-shaped token, the archaeologist dismisses it as a modern piece, probably dropped by a tourist, and allows Hector to keep it. The token proves to be more ancient, and more magical, than anyone could have guessed. It transports Hector back to Etruscan times, where he meets a boy named Arath, the original owner of the token. Arath is in trouble, and it seems that Hector has been brought to that time specifically to help him. But what can one boy from the the twenty-first century do?

Meh. Another all-right-but-not-great read. As an adult reader, I was more interested in the adults' backstory than in Hector's time-travel adventures. And as far as young readers are concerned, the book gets off to a rather slow start. Unless they have a particular interest in archaeology, they're not likely to keep going for the promise of more adventure later in the book. It's not a bad story, just not one that's particularly compelling.

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

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton is a much-hyped YA fantasy set in a not-too-distant future.

Quin, John, and Shinobu have trained for years for this. Soon, they will take the Oath and become Seekers, guardians of an ancient magical artifact called an athame, defenders of truth, warriors of justice. But when John fails to perform well in their last training fight, Quin's father Briac, the training master, informs John that he will not be taking the oath with the others. John's journey is over before it had a chance to begin. As it turns out, this may have been for the best, as Quin and Shinobu are about to discover: you see, Seekers may once have been defenders of truth and justice, but now they are little more than hired killers. Now, on one side are Quin and Shinobu, sick with regret over what they have become, on another side is Briac, determined to enforce the young Seekers' oath, and on a third side is John, nursing a grudge for more than just his recent bad treatment at Briac's hands and determined to do whatever it takes to gain control of the athame. It's a volatile combination, and the ensuing action will range from the Scottish highlands, to downtown Hong Kong, to an airship floating over London. Who will prevail?

This book's publishers have hyped it so much that it can't possibly live up to its reputation. However, if you've somehow missed out on the hype and can take it at face value, it's not a bad story. Quin's character could stand to be a little more fleshed out, but many of the secondary characters are satisfactorily complex. The premise is interesting, and I will probably continue reading the series to see where it goes. Readers who like young adult fantasy with plenty of action should take a look at this book.

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is this year's Newbery Medalist.

Twelve-year-old Josh Bell is a basketball player, just like his dad, hoping to be as famous as his dad was, someday. Josh and his twin brother Jordan have been inseparable, on the court and off, all their lives. This year, though, things are changing. Jordan has a girlfriend, and Josh is, let's face it, a little bit jealous. When a spur-of-the-moment bad choice leads to Josh's suspension from the basketball team, he has to face up to more than one issue in his life and in his family.

More than a novel about basketball, this is a story of family dynamics that tugs the heartstrings with its pitch-perfect voice. I'm loving the fact that this Newbery medal winner is a book that I'll be able to recommend to all kinds of readers: sports fans, lovers of verse novels, readers who like a good story about siblings and families . . . really, anyone who enjoys a good, solid read.

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

The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes

The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes is a YA novel about, love, war, and the similarities between the two!

Lainey Mitchell had a great junior year, her summer is off to an epic start, and senior year promises to be all that she could want: co-captain of the soccer team, student body vice-president, and maybe even homecoming queen beside her long-time boyfriend Jason. And then, out of the blue, Jason shows up at the coffee shop where Lainey works, and dumps her. Lainey is not about to take this lying down. With the help of her best friend Bianca and an ancient Chinese warlord, Lainey devises a plan. That's right: she decides to take her cues from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. She teams up with Micah, a male coworker who has also recently been dumped, and together the two scheme to make their exes jealous and, hopefully, win them back. But just when Lainey's plan seems to be working, she must decide: does she still want to win this battle?

This is a cute, fairly typical YA romance. I picked it up because of the premise (The Art of War? Really?) which worked pretty well. It's going to be obvious to readers from the start that Lainey's boyfriend is a jerk and Micah is the guy she ought to end up with, but romance novels are all about watching how two characters end up together, so major plot twists are not required if the story is good. I think this will appeal to readers who love YA romance -- for me, it was an okay read, but not a great one.

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John is a hilarious tale of pranksters at war.

Miles Murphy is a prankster. He was the best prankster at his old school, and now that his family has moved to boring Yawnee Valley, he fully expects to be the best prankster at his new school. There's just one problem: his new school already has a prankster. A really good one. Better than Miles? Perhaps. The only way to settle the issue is, of course, a prank war. The results are epic, but there's one thing that could top them: the two pranksters working together on one enormous, unforgettable prank that will astonish the entire school.

This book is just plain fun. It's a quick read that will have you laughing out loud more than once or twice. Of course, as a sworn member of the International Order of Disorder (I had to join in order to get a signed copy of this book) I'm obligated to support the literary efforts of my fellow members. Perhaps this is the most boring book ever, and this review is all one big prank! To find out for sure, you'll just have to read it for yourself. Heh, heh, heh.

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

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold is a lovely story of friendship, adventure, loss, and imagination.

Rudger is Amanda's best friend. Of course, he's imaginary, but neither Amanda nor Rudger is bothered by this. Then, one day, Mr. Bunting comes to the door. Unlike any other adult in the world, Mr. Bunting can see Rudger -- but this is definitely not a good thing. It's obvious from their first meeting that there's something wrong with Mr. Bunting, something ominous about him. When a later run-in with the man causes an accident that separates Rudger and Amanda, Rudger must run for his life to escape Mr. Bunting and get back to Amanda . . . but can an imaginary boy survive on his own, without his real-world friend?

This book works so well on so many levels. The characters are quirky and fun, the plot moves right along, there are some scary bits and some funny bits -- kids will love this book. There's also pathos and attention to detail (the cat's name is Oven, and I won't tell you why that is significant, but it is) and depth -- adults will love this book. I can see it working really well as a classroom read-aloud for second or third graders, though it might be a little too scary for children any younger than that. Also, it is fabulously illustrated by the talented Emily Gravett. This may be the best book I've read so far this year. Highly recommended.

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a brief story of an English schoolgirl whose world opens up when she meets two boys from Mongolia.

Sixth-grader Julie is mostly interested in getting her crush's attention and finding a way to get her popular friend to invite Julie over to her house after school, until the day she meets Chingis and Nergui. Charismatic Chingis, who is able to talk Julie's teacher into allowing his younger brother to stay in their classroom instead of being sent to a lower grade, appoints Julie as the brothers' 'good guide.' Julie takes her new role seriously, spending free time with Chingis and Nergui and doing a report on Mongolia which she shares with the class. She tries to extend their friendship beyond the classroom, hoping to see where the boys live, but when she finally achieves this goal, she gets an unexpected glimpse into the fear that Chingis and his family live with from day to day. When the family is abruptly deported, Julie is left with questions that haunt her well into adulthood.

This is an interesting book, almost surreal in places (this effect is amplified by the Polaroid-style illustrations sprinkled throughout), but also grimly realistic in its portrayal of a family caught in a difficult situation. In the Author's Note at the end, Boyce mentions that the story was inspired by real-life events. Though this is a quick read, I think it will appeal more to adults than to children.

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

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is three books in one, linked together by a mysterious harmonica.

Friedrich is a musical boy in 1933 Germany, where political tensions run high. His outspoken father, recently retired from the Hohner harmonica factory where Friedrich and his uncle Gunter still work, opposes Hitler and his ideas about racial purity -- but Friedrich's older sister Elisabeth has just started getting involved with the League of German Girls. When Friedrich, who was born with a port wine stain covering half of his face, is in danger from the new regime and his father is in danger for speaking out against it, what will become of Friedrich and his family?

Mike is a scrappy orphan in 1935 Philadelphia. Above all else, he wants to stay together with his younger brother Frankie, but it's rare for two orphans to be placed together from their orphanage. When, against the odds, the two brothers are placed with a wealthy lady, Mike knows it's too good to be true. The lady wanted a girl, not two boys. Mike knows that Frankie, with his winning personality, can charm their new guardian -- and perhaps he can find his own place in the world, maybe even in Hoxie's Philadelphia Harmonica Band. Is there any way that the brothers can stay together, or will Mike have to sacrifice to give Frankie his best chance?

Ivy is a migrant worker's daughter in 1942 California. Her father has just gotten a good job managing a farm for a Japanese resident who has been relocated to a internment camp, and Ivy is crushed because that will mean moving away from her favorite teacher and her best friend, just days before she was to have a solo in her class harmonica concert on the radio. In her new home, Ivy is dismayed to discover that the school system is segregated and Mexican students are bused to a separate elementary school. In facing this injustice in her life, she also reflects on the greater injustice faced by Japanese residents like the Yamamoto family who own the farm where her father now works. But when Ivy and her mother go to the Yamamoto house to check for rodents or any other damage, Ivy finds a mysterious locked door at the back of a closet. What secrets have the house's owners hidden away? Are they really enemies of America, as some of the neighbors believe?

This is a hefty chunk of a book, since it is really three books in one, tied together with a fairy-tale-like frame story and a unique harmonica that makes its way into the hands of each of the three children in turn. However, I found it a fast, well-paced read with interesting characters and a gripping plot. The dialogue is a little teach-y in spots, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the book. I liked how the author tied the events of each story together at the end of the book. In my opinion, the frame story was the weakest bit of the book, but perhaps that was just because I was expecting historical fiction and the fantasy element seemed slightly out of place. Nevertheless, this is a good book that will be enjoyed by both young readers and adults.

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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is this year's Printz Medal winner.

When they were thirteen, twins Noah and Jude could hardly be more different: Noah was the quiet, sensitive, and artistic boy who dodged bullies and dreamed of attending the nearby arts high school, Jude was the confident and popular surfer girl. Despite their differences, the two were inseparable. But by age 16, things have changed: Jude is the one attending the arts high school, camouflaging herself in dark, baggy clothes, and creating sculptures representing her own brokenness, while Noah has become a jock at the normal public high school, who never draws or paints any more. The most striking difference, though, is that Noah and Jude hardly speak to each other any more. They've been split apart by a family tragedy. What will it take to mend their relationship?

I'm hardly doing justice to this book with that summary. This is one of the best books I've read this year -- touching and uplifting and thought-provoking and funny. It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books from last year, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, but I think I actually liked this one better. I can absolutely see why this book won the Printz Medal. Highly recommended!

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

The Chosen Prince by Diane Stanley

The Chosen Prince by Diane Stanley is a tale of mythology and destiny.

The auguries at Prince Alexos' birth pointed to an interesting collection of traits: strength and weakness, wisdom and foolishness, virtue . . . and greatness. Is Alexos the chosen prince, prophesied long ago to heal a kingdom split apart by pointless war? When tragedy strikes, it seems as if Alexos cannot be the chosen one, after all -- but perhaps the goddess Athene still has other plans.

I wanted to like this book -- and I did, to some extent. I think the main barrier to my mind was the writing style. The author chose to use third-person present tense, and that unusual choice meant that the writing never got out of the way of the story; I was always aware of it, never fully immersed. I found the main characters satisfyingly complex, though some of the secondary characters (the king, for instance) were hardly more than stock characters. The plot moved along smoothly and I never felt that it was dragging, and the book deals with interesting themes of morality, destiny, and freedom. If you can get past the narrative perspective, I think this is a worthwhile read, particularly to readers who enjoy books set in the ancient world with overtones of mythology.

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

Next Top Villain by Suzanne Selfors

Next Top Villain by Suzanne Selfors is part of a new "Ever After High" spinoff series.

Duchess Swan may not have a storyline with a Happily Ever After at the end, but she doesn't have a drop of evil in her bloodline -- so when she gets her class schedule and discovers that she is taking General Villainy, she is sure there must be some mistake. When Professor BadWolf refuses to let her transfer out and sets the entire class the assignment to do something nasty and rotten by the end of the week, Duchess is not sure what to do. Should she let the assignment slide and get her first ever failing grade . . . or should she complete the assignment, even if it means straying from her storyline? Is becoming evil the only way Duchess can achieve a Happily Ever After?

This was a cute story. I'm unfamiliar with the Ever After High franchise, so I don't know how it compares to other books in the series. The premise was a lot like The School for Good and Evil, but with a much smaller page count. I think fans of the series will enjoy this, though I didn't like it enough to recommend it for general consumption.

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

Smek for President by Adam Rex

Smek for President by Adam Rex is the sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday, and it's just as hilarious and fun as its predecessor.

It's been a couple of years since Gratuity "Tip" Tucci and her alien pal J.Lo saved the world, and adjusting to everyday life has not been easy for them. J.Lo would like to visit the other Boov, now happily settled on one of Saturn's moons, but he (yes, J.Lo is male) is still persona non grata with the Boov. Tip, meanwhile, is chafing under her mom's new and improved parenting style and wishing for a little of the freedom she enjoyed back in her world-saving days. Determined to go to New Boovworld and explain his role in saving the Earth to Captain Smek, J.Lo modifies Slushious, their flying car, for space travel. He and Tip head for New Boovworld . . . without Tip's mother's knowledge or permission. Of course, when they arrive, things don't go exactly as planned. Smek, struggling through a grueling presidential race, decides to imprison J.Lo as a political move to boost his popularity. Tip escapes, but now she is lost on a strange planet with no way home and no idea how to help her friend. Can Tip rescue J.Lo and get home? And what will her mother say about the whole situation?

I really love The True Meaning of Smekday (which is, by the way, the basis for the animated movie Home which comes out this spring). This sequel has the same delightful humor and touches of deeper social commentary, though the plotting in this volume is perhaps not quite as tight. Still, I read the whole book in two big gulps, and I hope that someday we'll see more of Tip and J.Lo.

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta is the first book in an acclaimed epic fantasy series.

Some ten years ago, Lumatere was a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. Finnikin of the Rock, son of the Captain of the King's Guard and best friend to the young prince, was enjoying an idyllic childhood. Then came the five days of the Unspeakable, when Lumatere's rulers were overthrown and many of her people exiled, while others remained trapped within the curse-sealed gates of the walled kingdom. Finnikin was left outside the walls with Sir Topher, the king's trusted adviser, and the two have spent the intervening years traveling the surrounding kingdoms, trying to help Lumatere's scattered people. When Finnikin has a dream drawing him to a distant convent of the Goddess, he hopes to find news of the lost prince. Instead, he finds a girl named Evanjalin. Finnikin is disappointed at first, but it soon becomes clear that the girl is more than what she seems. Will she be the one who helps Finnikin and the scattered people of Lumatere return to their homeland?

This is an impressively well-written fantasy, but it was not for me. I just found the whole thing a little too gritty and brutal, what with all of the rape and torture and death and vengeance. I disliked all of the characters to some extent, and I saw the big plot twist coming a long way off. I can see this appealing to readers who like their fantasy with darkly flawed characters and plenty of gore, so if it sounds like your thing, don't be put off by my review.

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

Dearest by Alethea Kontis

Dearest by Alethea Kontis is the third book in the Woodcutter Sisters series of retold fairy tales.

Friday Woodcutter, loving and giving, is caught up in a mysterious magical ocean that comes flooding through the kingdom. She is almost drowned, but a passerby takes her to the castle where her sister Sunday is queen, and where many refugees have fled due to the flood. While caring for the refugee children, Friday befriends a mute kitchen maid and discovers that this maid is more than what she seems: a foreign princess caught in a curse, along with her six brothers who sleep in the ruined tower as princes by night, and swim in the castle pond as swans by day. Friday, with her empathic magic and her skill with a needle, is the ideal sister to help these cursed individuals -- but the evil magician who cast the curse is on his way to the kingdom, and Friday and her new friends may not have much time. . .

The events in this book are concurrent with those in its predecessor, Hero -- this book tells about what happens in the kingdom while Saturday is off on her adventure. It's just as delightful as the first two volumes, and can stand on its own fairly well, though I'd recommend starting at the beginning with Enchanted. My only criticism is that the climax of the book is a little muddled, or crammed too full of stuff, a fault that the other books in the series share. I think it's because the series has such an ambitious premise, pulling in all sorts of fairy tale elements in each book and yet also weaving together the larger story of the Woodcutter family, seeped as they are in legend and portent. I'm excited to see where the series goes next (I'm assuming each sister gets a book, but that could be tricky since one of them is, well, dead), and I'm already picking up hints that Monday's story, which should be the last book in the series, will be epic. Fans of retold fairy tales, if you haven't discovered this series yet, you need to do so soon!

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks

Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks is a cute juvenile fantasy with elements of metafiction.

Tuesday's family seems ordinary to most observers, but that's because they don't know the truth: Tuesday's mother is the world-famous novelist Serendipity Smith. Tuesday loves her mom's stories, but her favorite times are when her mom is not writing and the family can enjoy time together. On the evening of the last day of school, Tuesday enters her mother's writing room, hoping to find that her mother has finished her book and family vacation can commence. Instead, Tuesday finds her mother missing, with only a mysterious thread and an open window as clues to her whereabouts. Following the thread, Tuesday finds herself in the world of story, where she's convinced her mother is being held hostage by the villain of her books. Can Tuesday rescue her mother, or will her efforts ruin the story and trap both of them there for good?

I liked this story well enough while reading it, though it has a few weaknesses in writing and plot. I think kids in grades 3-6 will really enjoy this story, though I probably wouldn't recommend it to most adult readers -- if you like the premise, try a different series about a woman named for a day of the week: Thursday Next.

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

The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale

The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale is a fun early chapter book about an unconventional princess.

Princess Magnolia has a secret: when the Monster Alarm goes off, she leaves her perfectly pink chambers and becomes The Princess in Black, fearlessly protecting her kingdom from the monsters that would otherwise run amok. But when the Monster Alarm goes off as she is sipping hot chocolate with the Duchess Wigtower, will Princess Magnolia be able to deal with the intruder and return before the Duchess can snoop into her belongings and find out her secret?

This delightful little book demonstrates that girls can be princesses and superheroes, too. With its chapter book layout, simplified wording, and plethora of bright illustrations, it hits it just right for readers who are just graduating from leveled readers into the world of chapter books. I'm hoping to hear more about the Princess in Black and her incipient sidekick the Goat Avenger soon!

(Reviewed from a finished copy, courtesy of the publisher via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen is a teen memoir with a fun twist.

When Maya Van Wagenen discovers a 1950's teen popularity guide while helping organize her father's office, she just thinks of it as a weird curiosity -- until her mother suggests that she take the guide's advice for her eighth grade school year and document the consequences. Though she initially balks at the idea, she finds she can't get it out of her head, and so she embarks on a quest for the 1950's teen ideal. She starts with the easiest chapters and works her way up to the more challenging ones. Along the way, of course, she learns a lot of interesting stuff about popularity, her fellow students, and herself.

I read this all in one evening -- I definitely found it a fun, engaging read. It would pair well with Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt, a novel with a similar premise. I'd recommend this to readers who enjoy memoirs and high school stories.

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

The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng

The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng is a gentle, slight story for middle-grade readers.

Third-grader Anna is having friend troubles: her ex-best-friend Laura is now hanging around with Allison, a mean but popular girl, leaving Anna on her own. Anna escapes into the pages of books -- but when Laura is facing serious problems at home, can Anna let go of her resentment and remember how to be Laura's true friend?

The best descriptor I can come up with for this book is "nice" -- it's not going to rock anyone's world, but it's a nice, gentle sort of story. Girls like Anna, who escape into books and have friendship troubles and run-ins with mean girls, will see themselves in this book. There's also an element of diversity as Anna learns to respect her Chinese heritage. A pleasant read, but I won't seek out others in the series.

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming is a look at the tumultuous years leading up to the Russian Revolution.

During the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the rich grew richer, the poor grew poorer, and the government grew out of control as the leaders lost touch with the realities of life for the average Russian peasant or worker. Unprepared to lead a country, Nicholas listened to bad advice, took drastic action that exacerbated the problems the country faced, and failed to act when action was needed. As the government was overthrown, and then overthrown again, Nicholas and his family suffered the fatal effects of these decisions.

I've read a fair bit about the Russian revolution, so most of the major details of this story were familiar to me. Fleming has done a great job of researching and organizing her facts, including primary source accounts from common people as well as the nobility. However, I felt that she was not sympathetic to the subjects of this book, the Romanov family themselves. (In a speech accepting the nomination of this book as a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction finalist, she admitted that she initially intended to write just about Anastasia, but found her "boring" the more she researched her.) I feel that a biographer, even of such flawed subjects as the Romanovs, should find something to like in her subject matter. On the other hand, this book is almost compulsively readable, hard to put down even if you know what is coming. (I did, and I still kept reading right up until bedtime, with the result that I had nightmares about the House of Special Purpose, as I knew I would.) And despite the dark portrait she paints of the Romanovs, she does not give the impression that what followed for Russia was an improvement. I think this is a good introduction to the Romanov family and the Russian revolution for readers unfamiliar with the topic, but would recommend looking at other sources as well if you find this period interesting.

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

The Grimm Conclusion by Adam Gidwitz

The Grimm Conclusion by Adam Gidwitz is the conclusion of his fractured fairy tale trilogy.

Once upon a time, fairy tales were dark and scary and just generally awesome. Gidwitz has never shied away from the more grim side of the Brothers Grimm, and he continues to explore those murky depths in the stories of Jorinda and Joringel, who face a cruel stepfather, a heartless king, and even the Devil himself (not to mention his grandmother) before reaching "The End."

Though the three books in this trilogy are more companions than sequels, readers who have already enjoyed the first two books are likely to get more out of this one. I'm a big fan of fractured fairy tales, and though I felt like occasionally Gidwitz overdid it on the gross factor, I think this book has a lot of kid appeal and does a good job of wrapping up the series.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Completely Clementine by Sara Pennypacker

Completely Clementine by Sara Pennypacker is the conclusion of the Clementine series.

It's the end of the school year, and Clementine is not ready to say goodbye to third grade. What if her fourth grade teacher is not as understanding as Mr. D'matz? Has she really learned enough to move on? Clementine is not sure. On top of that, she's not speaking to her father, who ate some of Mrs. Jacobi's meatloaf in spite of Clementine's strongly-held, albeit recently-discovered, views on eating animals. Plus, Margaret's mother is about to get married, and Clementine's mother is about to have a baby. There are plenty of changes in store for Clementine as she prepares to say goodbye to third grade -- and to her adoring readers.

I'm sad to see Clementine go, but glad she went out on a high note with this book, which is just as delightful and tightly written as the earlier books in the series. These are such fun books, and I know I'll be recommending them to young readers for years to come.

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

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier is a delightfully creepy middle-grade tale.

Siblings Molly and Kip escaped the Irish potato famine only to find themselves orphaned and penniless in unfriendly England. To soften the harsh realities of their situation for her younger brother, Molly spins stories for him as they travel to their new home. The only place Molly can find work is at the creepy Windsor mansion in the foreboding Sourwoods. She was prepared to tell all sorts of stories to get hired, but in truth, the solicitor who gave her the job seemed almost too anxious to fill the position. When they arrive at the Windsor estate, they find a crumbling old house dominated by an enormous black tree that almost seems to have the entire house in its grasp. The house is full of secrets, including a locked room, nightmares that plague every inhabitant, and muddy footprints that mysteriously appear during the night. Despite the unlikelihood of finding another job, Molly is tempted to take Kip and leave -- until, one day, she discovers what waits in the locked room . . .

On the rare occasions when I read something that might be classified as horror, I feel the need to add the disclaimer that I don't usually do horror, so hardcore fans of the genre will probably laugh derisively at my idea of what is scary. That said, I thought this was a great story, with just the right level of scariness for, say, a fourth or fifth grade reader who has graduated from the Goosebumps books and wants something with a little more substance. (Or for wimpy adults like me.)

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

Copper Magic by Julia Mary Gibson

Copper Magic by Julia Mary Gibson is historical fiction with just a hint of magic.

When Violet Blake discovers a Native American relic in the woods near her home, she little expects the changes that are about to take place in her own life. The flat copper hand seems to show her glimpses of the past. When a wish she makes while holding the hand comes true, she starts wondering if the hand really is magical -- and when it is taken from her, she is determined to do anything to get it back.

This book has a lot going for it, but it fell short in a few ways, for me. I thought the characterization was a little uneven, and the pacing dragged in the middle of the book. I did like the setting and period that the author chose for this story. All in all, an okay read, but not a great one.

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