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.)