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.)