Thursday, August 18, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling

Warning: This review contains SPOILERS for all of the original Harry Potter books, as well as for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Albus Severus Potter is headed off to Hogwarts, and he fears the possibility that he might be sorted into Slytherin.  Will he be able to live down his father's legacy?  Meanwhile, dark deeds are happening in the wizarding world, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione must face them again, this time as adults.

Meh, it was all right. There were some great moments, but also a lot of head-scratching. Here's what I liked:
-Scorpius -- what a great character!
-The Snape cameo, because Snape. *sigh*
-Delphi Diggory -- she had the right feel for a Harry Potter character, if that makes sense, and so the big reveal of her parentage had the right impact. (However, more on that in the dislikes.)
-The action at the climax -- I can see that being really fantastic on stage, lots of emotion.

Here's what I didn't like:
-It's been said elsewhere, but it's true: the writing felt like fanfic.  The characters did not always ring true, details from the original series were fudged (some of those issues are big enough that they will get their own bullet point), and the whole story was preoccupied with the events of the past, so it felt like a rehashing of Goblet of Fire.
-Polyjuice: I don't think Thorne knows how it works.  At one point, Albus suggests that they throw some together for immediate use from ingredients in Bathilda's basement.  Hasn't anybody read Hogwarts, A History Chamber of Secrets?  The concoction of Polyjuice Potion -- particularly, the fact that you cannot make it and use it in a matter of minutes or hours -- was a major plot point in that book.
-Time Turners: This was a mixed bag; I liked that the law they introduced was named after a character mentioned in the original series, but I also thought a lot of the stuff they introduced regarding Time Turners was wayyy too convenient in terms of plot.  I found myself wishing that Rowling had explained more in the original series (for instance, it would have been easy for Hermione, in exposition mode, to have explained that you can't go back more than a few hours without causing irreparable harm). But my big problem with the time turners was that they contributed in a big way to to fanfiction-y feel.  (Possibly because I think I wrote some of that fic  shortly after the release of book 7.)
-Changes to the original series: these were mostly minor.  For instance, the way Bagman announced the events in the first task, it sounded like the champions were paraded past the crowd, which didn't happen in the books.  Maybe I'm misreading, but there were a lot of little things like that.  But a lot of little things adds up into not respecting the source material, and with fans who know the source material inside and out, you have to expect that any little changes will be noticed, so they had better be intentional.  These didn't feel intentional, they felt lazy.
-Baby Bellatrix: Wait, Bellatrix had a baby?  I'm trying to fit this into the original series, and the timing is baffling me.  Wouldn't somebody have noticed that this was happening?  I can absolutely buy that she was sleeping with the Dark Lord (though, ewww) because she totally wanted him in the books, but on the other hand, why would her pregnancy have been kept secret?  How would it have been kept secret?

-Zipping through the years: No, not with the Time Turner (I've already covered that above), but in the first few minutes of the play we skim through Albus and Scorpius' first three years at Hogwarts.  This seems unnecessary (why not just set the events in, say, their second year -- or just focus the play on the events of their fourth year, not attempting to stage those brief scenes from earlier years?) and in terms of stagecraft, needlessly difficult.  I'll be interested to see it on stage (I'm hoping it comes to Broadway some day) to see how that, and many of the other tricks described in the script, are accomplished.

Bottom line: I don't regret reading it, I didn't hate it, but I don't place it on the same level as the rest of the series.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville

It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville -- Dave, a young teen in New York City in the early 1960's, navigates friend troubles, conflict with his father, his first girlfriend, and, of course, pet ownership when he adopts a stray tomcat.

This book evokes era in New York City in a way similar to West Side Story (which is, coincidentally, name-checked in the book). There's some nice character development in this one, as Dave learns to understand his father's point of view -- at least in some cases. It's maybe more of a '50s story than a 60's one (a ducktail haircut and Harry Belafonte records are about the extent of Dave's teenage rebellion), and seems a bit innocent and clean-cut compared to what the same story might have been if it were set 5-10 years later. Still, it's a solid story and a fairly quick read. I think I read this one as a child, though my only recollection is of the cover, so maybe I just picked it up and put it down again! I'm not really sure who I'd recommend this book to, honestly.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen -- Marly's mother used to visit her grandmother on Maple Hill, where there was all the outdoors to play in, and where you might say that miracles happen. Now, Marly's mother has inherited the little house on Maple Hill, and Marly and her family are going to spend some time there -- weekends, and then the summer -- and Marly is hoping for a miracle. Her father came home from the war with deep psychological wounds, and life in their city apartment is not helping him recover. Maybe at Maple Hill, where there is work to be done in the fresh country air, their family can come together and be as they once were. Arriving in the early spring, Marly's family is introduced to the almost magical (but labor-intensive) process of collecting maple sap and converting it into syrup. They learn this, and many other useful things about country life, from their neighbor, Mr. Chris. Are there still miracles on Maple Hill? Marly is about to find out.

I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons. It's what some people think of as a "typical" Newbery (though there are plenty that break the mold): female protagonist, rich writing and character development, not a lot of plot. I like that sort of story if the writing is truly good enough to draw you in, and it certainly is in this case. However, readers who enjoy a more action-packed narrative might get impatient with this book, which reads like a long, leisurely hike through the woods. I also appreciated the wealth of detail about maple sugaring (a process I have been involved in at my own grandparents' Pennsylvania farm, so I can attest to the accuracy of the description) and all of the nature description. The writing reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle -- perhaps not surprising, since this is a story from a similar era; only five years separate this book and A Wrinkle in Time. (L'Engle usually has a bit more in they way of plot, though, I would say.) I'm not sure how well or poorly this book handles the depiction of Marly's father's PTSD, since I don't have a great deal of knowledge on the subject. I will say, though, that any improvement he saw was not immediate, but was a slow process, aided, perhaps, by peace and work. Judging by the year of the book's publication, I'm guessing that the war her father served in was the Korean War, though I suppose it might have been WWII. My grandfather served in Korea, so that was another personal connection I made with this book. It was just the right book for me, so I would recommend it to readers who like the same sorts of contemplative, character-driven narratives that I enjoy.

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

Monday, August 8, 2016

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski -- In some ways, the piney woods of Florida is just as wild as the Wild West. Birdie Boyer's family is determined to make a go of strawberry farming, but they will have trouble not only with the hazards presented by the natural world, but also resistance from a cantankerous neighbor.

This book reminded me strongly of the Little House books, both in content and in writing style. Characters speak in the vernacular, which may present a challenge for some readers. The ending seemed rather deus ex machina to me. Still, I would probably recommend this to readers of all ages who can't get enough frontier fiction.

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field -- In the early 1800's, a peddler carves a doll for a little girl of his acquaintance out of a sturdy piece of mountain ash wood. The doll is painted and dressed and given the name Mehitabel -- Hitty, for short. Over the course of her life, Hitty travels around the world by boat, by train, and eventually by automobile in the hands of various little girls (and sometimes, briefly, boys, men, and women). A hundred years later, she ends up in an antique shop, from whence she tells her story -- but are her adventures through? Hitty doesn't think so!

I was surprised at how readable I found this book. Though Hitty's adventures are episodic, I found that the plot carried me right along, always wondering where Hitty would end up next and how she would get out of whatever scrape she found herself in. I think that, if I had read this as a child, I would have enjoyed it immensely. After all, who doesn't imagine that their toys and dolls secretly come to life when nobody is watching? However, due to several problematic depictions in the book ("red injuns," "heathen savages," and African-American families speaking in an unflattering dialect, among other things), I probably wouldn't recommend this to children today, at least, not unless they were reading it with a good deal of adult guidance.

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric Kelly

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly -- In medieval Poland, a mysterious jewel is stolen, a family is displaced, and an alchemist seeks the secret of transmuting base metals to gold. This book won the Newbery back in 1929, and I do see some distinguished elements -- the writing is good, though a little more flowery than is common these days, and there's an interesting plot if you can get through all of the descriptive bits. The characters aren't particularly fleshed out (the alchemist, a secondary character, was probably the most interesting to me). I had a hard time staying engaged with the narrative, so it took me several days to get through this book. Would I recommend it to kids today? Probably only if I had one who was really fascinated with medieval stories.

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Zoe in Wonderland by Brenda Woods

When Zoe is having problems with school or siblings, her go-to spot is the Wonderland, her father's exotic plant nursery. But when faced with a snippy older sister, a sneaky younger brother, a best friend leaving on an extended visit to another town, and mean girls at school, will even the Wonderland be enough? Plus, she hears her dad and mom talking about money problems. Will they have to sell Zoe's refuge?

Despite the title, this is realistic fiction. I found the writing strong, the characters interesting, and the plot and pacing steady. I'll definitely recommend this to young readers who enjoy this sort of story.

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Audacity Jones to the rescue by Kirby Larson

Audacity Jones to the Rescue by Kirby Larson -- When feisty Audacity is chosen from among her fellow orphans for a special mission, she has dreams of making a difference in the world, but ends up entangled in a shady scheme. Can she foil the bad guys? Lucky for her, she won't have to do it alone.

A fun little historical adventure, one that will appeal to kids, but not necessarily to adult readers.

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

Friday, June 24, 2016

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen -- When Sarah's mother leaves, her father takes Sarah to the grandparents she never knew she had, where she learns that magic is real, and that her entire family is under a curse. Can Sarah break the curse before she, too, falls victim to it?

I liked the dark, atmospheric feel of this book, but I never really connected with the characters. Also, I'm not sure what I think of the ending -- it's a bit ambiguous, and some of the characters make decisions that don't make sense to me.

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova -- On the first day of middle school, Peppi Torres tripped and dropped her books. When sweet, nerdy Jaime tried to help her, bullies started taunting both of them, and Peppi pushed Jaime away. She's regretted it ever since, but her attempts to apologize are complicated by the fact that she's a member of the art club and he's a member of the science club. Between the two clubs there is a fierce rivalry. Can Peppi and Jaime find a way to connect, before the competition between clubs leads to disaster?

This story is sure to appeal to fans of Raina Telgemeier's graphic novels -- I'm sure I will be recommending it to young readers often!

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

Monday, June 13, 2016

Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins

Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins -- These twelve stories of summer love are (almost) as delightful as the first twelve collected in My True Love Gave to Me (almost, because there is no Rainbow Rowell story in this collection). As with any short story collection, there are high points and low points: I enjoyed Perkins' follow-up to her winter story, could have done without Francesca Lia Block's tale, I don't think Jon Skovron actually knows any women based on how he writes them, but I loved Lev Grossman's story and found that it ended the collection on just the right note. Fans of YA, of romance, and of short stories will enjoy these seasonal offerings.

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Summerlost by Ally Condie

Summerlost by Ally Condie -- Still grieving over the recent deaths of her father and brother, twelve-year-old Cedar takes a summer job selling programs at a Shakespeare festival, makes a new friend, and searches for the solution to an old mystery.

This book exhibits strong character development, particularly in how Cedar and her family handle their grief. I also liked the setting, which was basically a fictionalization of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. However, I'm always bemused at otherwise realistic stories in which children as young as twelve find actual, formal jobs. Maybe I should give this book the benefit of the doubt -- after all, I've never looked into Utah's child labor laws. But it's a pet peeve that takes me right out of the story.

Pet peeves aside, there's plenty to like about this book, and I found it a good read for the start of summer.

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

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan

The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan -- Zeus needs someone to blame for the war with the giants, and his eye falls on Apollo. How do you punish a god? You make him mortal, of course. Apollo the scrawny teenager falls to earth in a New York City back alley, and immediately is set upon by thugs, then falls in with a young demigod who has some secrets she's not telling. Apollo wants nothing more than to regain his godly status, but how? He's got a sinking suspicion that it has to do with the Oracle of Delphi, which has been retaken by an old enemy of his. And, speaking of old enemies, some shadowy figures from the distant past seem to be making a bid for world domination. In fact, they may have been behind all of the troubles the demigods have faced thus far...

Just when I think Riordan has pretty much run through his source material, he manages to twist in a different direction and set off on a new course. Apollo's perspective is a lot of fun to read, what with the overweening egotism and all -- Riordan does make him somewhat sympathetic by the end of the book. And I'm intrigued by the new bad guys.

I didn't think this book was quite as action-packed as Riordan's other stuff, but it was doing a lot of work to set up the series. It was nice to go back to Camp Halfblood for a bit, and to see some old friends. I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point for readers new to Riordan, but fans of Percy Jackson should certainly take notice.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Ms. Rapscott's Girls by Elise Primavera

Ms. Rapscott's Girls by Elise Primavera -- Five daughters of extremely busy parents are sent to a most unusual boarding school, but one gets lost along the way.

Eh, it was okay. It's written in a style reminiscent of Lemony Snicket -- is there a word for that style? It's common enough among children's books that there ought to be. Kind of whimsical, bordering on absurd? Anyhow, there were adventures and lessons, but nothing in the story felt particularly fresh to me. Young readers who are not as jaded as I might enjoy it more. I listened to the audiobook, but even Katherine Kellgren couldn't manage to save this one from mediocrity for me.

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

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Get Happy by Mary Amato

Get Happy by Mary Amato -- Sixteen-year-old Min wants a ukulele for her birthday, but she gets a sweater instead. She also gets a mysterious package from the father she doesn't remember, who left when she was two. This sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her learning more about her father, and in the meantime, she also gets a job, meets an intriguing boy, writes some songs, and engages in a bit of cyberbullying. Eventually, she confronts her father and her mother about what really happened when she was a toddler.

You know how, sometimes, you start out disliking a character, but grow to like them over the course of the story? The reverse happened to me with this book. I liked angsty song-writing Min with her wacky best friend and disastrous beauty product experiments, but I did not like deceptive cyberbullying Min spewing vitriol over everyone in her path. I guess my main problem here is that I don't think the resolution of the book was satisfactory. Yes, Min improves slightly after her meltdown at the book's climax, but the reader never gets to see her work through the issues with her parents -- nor does she seem remorseful for how she has treated other people in her life. Maybe I am too far from being a teenager to really appreciate this book, but it left a sour taste in my mouth.

However, I did read it all in one evening, so it was compelling and well-written enough to keep me reading. I think that, if the author had given us a bit more resolution, a little bit more dialogue, I would have been a lot happier with it.

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

The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle -- In the six months since his sister died, Quinn has barely left his house. He has stopped working on his screenplay, and he has intentionally lost his cell phone. When his best friend drags him out to shop, get a haircut, and go to a party, it's the start of a crazy week, full of plot twists and revelations and even a little romance.

Federle has a keen ear for dialogue and a deft hand at character development. I didn't always like Quinn, but I always found myself rooting for him. I'd recommend this to readers who liked Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Cici Reno: #middleschoolmatchmaker by Kristina Springer

Cici Reno: #MiddleSchoolMatchmaker by Kristina Springer -- A modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac. Cici's best friend has a crush on a guy, but is too shy to actually talk to him. Cici comes up with a plan: she will pretend to be her friend and chat with the guy online. Complications ensue as Cici realizes that she also likes the guy.

Cyrano is my favorite play, so I gravitate toward retellings and riffs on the theme. This one is cute and fluffy -- fun for the target audience, but not something I'd recommend across the board.

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

Prudence by Gail Carriger

Prudence by Gail Carriger is the first book in a new series, set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, but about 20 years in the future.

I'm not sure why, but I can't seem to finish a series by Gail Carriger before starting reading another series. So far, I've read three of the Parasol Protectorate, two of the Finishing School, and now one of the Custard Protocol. It's not precisely that I get bored, but I do find I can't binge-read her books or the style begins to grate on my nerves. So I put down a series, meaning to pick it up again later, and then a new series comes along and, well...

I found this about on par with her other books, so fans of the author, take note. I also found Prudence to be similar in character to our girl Jacky, so fans of the Bloody Jack series might also want to take note. All in all, a fun romp. Maybe I will be able to stick with this series (it helps that the second book is not out yet)!

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff -- LaVaughn has high aspirations: she wants to go to college, something that people in her neighborhood rarely do. To make money for college, she takes a job babysitting Jeremy and Jilly, the two children of a girl only a few years older than LaVaughn herself. Can LaVaughn work and keep up with her studies, or will she get pulled into the drama of the struggling family she's working for?

This verse novel is a quick, thought-provoking read as LaVaughn searches for balance. I enjoyed it, but probably will not bother with the sequels.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh -- Jonathan's mother sends him over the mountain to borrow a stew pot from his aunt . . . but what if there are bears? This very short story has a similar feel to the Little House books. I think beginning readers just making the jump to chapter books would still enjoy it. Older readers will find it too simplistic.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith -- I've loved the Disney movie based on this book for a long time (even as a small child, anything featuring dogs was a sure winner with me). But somehow I missed out on reading the book until now. I'm sorry not to have read it as a child, because I would have loved it, too. Disney didn't stray too far from the main story in this case, though a few details were altered and a couple of characters were conflated -- for example, in the book Pongo's wife and Perdita are two different dogs! A few bits of the story feel rather dated, particularly the parts featuring Pongo's wife, who's very much the 1950's ideal little woman in canine form, but it's not enough to put me off of the book. If you're a fan of the movie, or of dog stories with happy endings (I think is not too much of a spoiler to say, 101+ dogs and none of them die!), this is a pleasant little read.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry -- Paul and Maureen Beebe live with their grandparents, who gentle wild Chincoteague ponies for a living, but training up ponies for sale is not the same as having one of your very own. The brother and sister have their hearts set on buying a pony on the next pony-penning day -- and not just any pony, but the Phantom, who has resisted capture for two years running. This year, the Phantom is captured for a surprising reason: she has a foal. Will Paul and Maureen have enough money to buy both?

Confession: I never read this book as a child, though I was recommended it more than once. I had a childish aversion to it, and I was not pony crazy. So now, as an adult, I decided to read it and see what I missed. It's a nice enough story, with some action and suspense. The characters are fairly static, and the dialogue comes across as a bit old-fashioned, but I can see how the book would appeal to its target demographic. I'll definitely recommend it to horse lovers, but it's not going to become a favorite of mine.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas -- It's the summer before sixth grade, and Zomorod Yousefzadeh's family is moving to Newport Beach, California. Zomorod decides that this is the perfect time to adopt a more American-sounding name, so she selects Cindy and sets off to brave the wilds of middle school. Little does she know that one of the defining events of her middle school years will be the revolution and hostage crisis in her family's home country, Iran.

I never would have guessed that I'd write the phrase, "a heartwarming middle-grade novel about the Iranian Hostage Crisis," but there you have it! This book is sweet and funny, and the characters are well-developed and true to life. The story is semi-autobiographical, and the author has clearly not forgotten how it feels to be a middle-schooler. Portions of the book did feel a bit didactic, but I feel that the author did a good job of incorporating a large amount of historical context, and it was necessary to the story, especially since these events are not likely to be familiar to much of the target audience. I know I learned a lot! Here's hoping this book finds the wide audience it so richly deserves.

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

Grayling's Song by Karen Cushman

Grayling's Song by Karen Cushman -- Grayling is the daughter of a hedge witch, but she has no magic of her own, or at least, only a few little things she has learned from helping her mother. But Grayling's life is about to change: she comes home one day to find the cottage burned down, her mother's grimoire stolen, and her mother half turned into a tree. Grayling must go on a quest to find the missing grimoire and any magical folk who have not succumbed to the same leafy fate as her mother. Along the way, Grayling gathers together a motley group of traveling companions, faces many dangers, and learns that she is capable of more than she could ever have imagined.

All of Karen Cushman's books are marked by careful research, keen insight, and gentle humor, and this book is no exception. All in all, I found it charming but not compelling: I sat it down for several days, read other things, and came back to it -- but I did come back. In fact, I'd like to hear more about Grayling, though I've never known Cushman to write a sequel. The ending is open enough to let readers gaze wistfully into Grayling's future, though all of the major plot threads are tied off. I'd recommend this book to fans of the author, as well as those who enjoy fantasy stories about common people in a medieval setting.

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

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Revenge of the Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen

Revenge of the Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen -- I know, it's really not nice to torment you all with a review of a book that isn't out until 2017, but I got an early e-galley from the publisher, and I just couldn't resist. In this sequel to Evil Librarian, Cyn and Ryan are at theatre camp, looking forward to a summer of acting and set design and a complete absence of demonic activity. Well, as you might expect, they get two out of three of those things. I'm not going to summarize more than that, for fear of spoilers -- but I will say that this book was just as much fun as its predecessor. Plenty of humor, plenty of action, plenty of drama, plus some great character development. Fans of the series, feel free to hate me for reading this one so early, but take comfort in knowing that my wait for the third book will be that much longer! Fortunately for all of us, the author has left an opening for a third book -- but not by means of a cliffhanger; this book's conclusion is satisfying.

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

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knusen

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen -- The hot new school librarian is not as human as he appears to be, and he's chosen Cynthia's best friend Annie to be his bride when he rules the underworld. Which he plans to do, but not until after the school's production of Sweeney Todd opens, because as everyone knows, demons love Sweeney Todd. Between her duties as technical director for the show and her desperate attempts to save Annie, Cyn has her hands full. Oh, and she also has a crush on a hot guy -- who ends up helping her with the whole demon problem.

I devoured this fantastically fun read in one evening. Librarianship and theatre: what else could I ask for? I love that Cyn is the tech director (and a talented one at that). Definitely recommended!

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

Friday, May 27, 2016

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero -- Gabi has a lot on her plate for a high-school senior: one of her best friends is pregnant, the other just get kicked out of the house when he came out to his parents, Gabi's dad is on meth, her brother is getting into trouble, and her mom keeps reminding her that she could stand to lose a few pounds. Plus, she's got a crush on a guy, and she needs to find a way to pass Algebra II or she won't be able to get into Berkeley. Despite all this drama, Gabi retains her sense of humor and her zest for life as she navigates her senior year. This may sound like just another YA problem novel, but Gabi's distinctive and humorous voice keeps it from going too far over the edge. Readers will find themselves rooting for Gabi all the way -- I know I did!

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

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb -- A cross-country trip to see a boy turns into a voyage of self-discovery. I expected a typical YA romance, but this book ended up subverting my expectations with its surprising depths. It's less about the romance, more about friendship and grief and travel and loyalty and the complexities of the relationships between teenage daughters and their mothers. I listened to the audiobook, and this is a solid, though not outstanding, production. Recommended.
(Reviewed from an e-audiobook, borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo -- I finished this one some time ago, so the details are a little vague in my mind already. However, what remains is the sense of a sweet, satisfying read, well-crafted and evocative. Of all the DiCamillo I've read so far, this one comes closest to achieving the excellence of Because of Winn Dixie. Highly recommended, and I'm predicting that this one has a good chance at a shiny sticker next January.

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

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea is the story of one fifth-grade classroom and their inspirational teacher, and what happens in the aftermath of a tragic accident. I can see why this book has achieved moderate popularity: it has the funny and heartwarming elements typical to this type of story, and with its school setting and balance of male and female point of view characters, it will work well in the classroom. I found it difficult to distinguish between some of the characters -- Jessica and Anna, for instance, have a very similar narrative voice. Still, it made for a pleasant read (well, listen, as I read it via audiobook) and I'll recommend it to readers looking for something a little bit like Wonder, as it has the same sort of setting and gentle moral tone.

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin

The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin -- Young Prince Lev Lvov is finally going to take his place at the home of his ancestors. The last of a proud line, Lev dreams of noble stature and military glory. He's determined to emulate his grandfather, a true hero. However, life at Falcon House is not exactly what Lev expected: the house is dusty and most rooms are closed up, the servants are quirky, and the only other member of the family in the enormous house is his volatile aunt. Left for the night in his grandfather's study (believed by the servants to be haunted, but Lev is a true Lvov, not given to superstition!), Lev meets the only other child in the house, an odd boy named Vanyousha. In Vanyousha's company, Lev sets out to learn the secrets of Falcon House -- but what he discovers does not throw a positive light on his illustrious grandfather. Just who is Vanyousha? Why has Lev been brought to Falcon House? These are only a few of the questions that readers will uncover as they journey with Lev and Vanyousha through the dank and moldy halls of Falcon House.

Though at first it appears to be just a ghost story, this book has surprising depth as Lev learns the truth about his grandfather and decides what sort of man he is to be. Ah, Russians: even your ghost stories are more melancholy than scary! This book runs the gamut of emotions -- there are a few frightening moments, some sad ones, and a surprising amount of humor, too (I loved the scene where Lev and Vanyousha slid down the banister!) There are two twists at the ending, one of which I was expecting, and one of which surprised me. Recommended.

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

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems -- This brief tale concerns a very large cat and a very small dog, who meet in Paris and help each other branch out and discover new ways to experience the world. It's a charming, if slight, book, less laugh-out-loud funny than one generally expects of Mo Willems, but containing some gentle humor. A good choice for young readers just making the foray into chapter books.

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee

A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee

Things Annabel Grey wants:
-A pair of emerald green ice skates
-A pink sprigged muslin day dress
-Her mother to come back and take care of her

Things Annabel Grey does not want:
-A broomstick
-Magical powers
-A quest to save all of London from an evil wizard

Needless to say, Annabel is not going to get much of what she wants, and she is going to get a great deal of what she doesn't want. Despite her proper upbringing, Annabel has magic in her veins, and her mother has sent her to live with her two great-aunts in order to learn witchcraft. Unfortunately for Annabel, she arrives on the eve of a crisis, when Mr. Angel, a practitioner of black magic, has perfected a machine that will allow him to raise an army of shadowlings and take over the world. The only thing that can stop him is the White Wand, also known as the Moreover Wand, which lies somewhere beneath London. Only the youngest member of the Good and Benevolent Magical Society can retrieve the wand -- and Annabel is the youngest member. Accompanied by a peculiar and wild girl named Kitty, Annabel must travel along an underground river, through the Singing Gate and into the Troll Kingdom, across the Lake of Tears and past the great Wyrm . . . and she must do so before moonrise, or Mr. Angel wins!

This is a lovely story. The interactions between the characters are simply perfect, the plot moves on apace, and the writing is enchanting. I very much enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good fantasy of manners or well-written juvenile fiction.

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

Sorry about the hiatus

It's been a while, hasn't it?  I've been reading and I've even been writing reviews -- they just haven't made it over here yet.  So, if you're still checking in with me, thanks!  I'm going to try and catch up my backlog over the next few days.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Pax by Sara Pennypacker -- When Peter's father goes off to war, Peter must go live with his grandfather, and Pax, Peter's pet fox, must be returned to the wild. Peter immediately regrets this course of action, and determines to run away and find Pax. Pax is also determined to return to his boy. But the journey will not be easy for either of them...

I knew this story was going to make me cry, and it did. The writing is strong and the characters are well-developed, the pacing is good . . . this has all of the elements of an award-winning book and an instant classic. If you can handle the emotions inherent in this sort of animal story, this is a must-read.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2016

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill -- Em used to be sweet and naive, and maybe a little self-centered. Her biggest worry was how to make her best friend James see her as more than a friend. That was then -- now, she's trying to save the world.

This is a fast-paced YA dystopia with a time travel element. I was impressed at the plotting and the pacing. The time travel wasn't exhaustively explained, but we get enough information to buy in to it, and the plot moves along quickly and keeps the reader engaged. I also liked the characters, and thought the author did a good job of showing the development from their past selves to their future selves. I have some problems with the ending, but I won't get into that here and spoil it for you (though, if you've read it, I'd love to discuss). Bottom line: if this type of story appeals to you at all, you should read this book.

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

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels is another tour de force by Brian Selznick, who has pioneered this particular format of illustrated novel. In the first half of the book, through illustrations, we follow the story of a theatrical family in London. The second half of the book, in text, is the story of a troubled young boy in the 1990s who runs away from school and ends up with his curmudgeonly uncle, who lives in a most extraordinary house. The two stories come together in magical and surprising ways.

I enjoyed this book more than Wonderstruck but not as much as Hugo Cabret. I've seen the three books referred to as a series, or companion novels, but they are really tied together only by format, as there is no overlap in characters or plot that I can see. I found the story intriguing, and now I have another place on the list of attractions to visit next time I go to London!

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

Friday, March 18, 2016

Playing Juliet by Joanne Wetzel

Playing Juliet by JoAnne Stewart Wetzel -- For as long as she's been involved with the Oakfield Children's Theatre, Beth has dreamed of someday playing the role of Juliet. She knows she's not ready yet, but with a few more years of experience, she thinks she might have a chance. But she may not get a few more years of experience, because it's rumored that the theatre will have to close. Can Beth and her friends find a way to save the theatre -- or will her dream role remain only a dream?

This was a fun light read in a setting that I, as a theatre nerd, appreciated. I felt that Beth's Shakespeare knowledge was a bit beyond her years (it's a rare 12-year-old indeed who can grasp the complexities of Shakespeare's language without help), but that didn't take me out of the story. Young readers who enjoy books with a theatrical setting will eat this one up.

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

Thursday, March 17, 2016

See How They Run by Ally Carter

See How They Run by Ally Carter is the second book in the Embassy Row series. I wasn't too impressed with the first one, so I'm not sure why I picked this one up. The lure of a free galley, I suppose, and then the need for a fast-paced, light read. It was a mistake, though: the main character's histrionics wore on my nerves. So, learn a lesson from my experience, and pass this one up if the first book didn't do anything for you. On the other hand, fans of the first book will probably enjoy this one, too.

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox -- An evil enchantress is stealing the souls of children, and logical Kat and her siblings must figure out how to stop her. This is a lovely, creepy tale set during WWII. I really enjoyed it (though, in my current reading slump, it took me much longer to finish it than usual). Recommended to readers who like historical fiction with some fantastical and gothic elements.

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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly -- Soledad and her little sister Dominga moved to America with their father and stepmother, but their father went back to the Philippines for a visit and never returned. Now Sol and Ming live in a small apartment with their abusive stepmother. Ming hopes for rescue by Aunt Jovelyn, an imaginary relative that their mother used to tell them stories about, but Sol knows that the two of them will have to save themselves. Can she find a way to make Ming's summer magical?

This story has some lovely elements, like the relationship between the sisters, but it never completely came together for me. There were jumps in the plot that had me going back to see if I missed something, and threads were left dangling that I wanted to see tied up. It's a promising novel, and readers looking for stories with diverse protagonists should keep it in mind, but I wouldn't recommend it across the board.

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

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Seven Dead Pirates by Linda Bailey

Seven Dead Pirates by Linda Bailey -- Timid sixth-grader Lewis is sad when his great-grandfather dies, but excited when the terms of the old man's will require Lewis and his parents to occupy Shornaway, Great-Grandfather's old house, in order to inherit it. Lewis claims the tower bedroom, pleased to be sleeping some distance away from his controlling (but loving) parents. Lewis is less pleased to discover that the tower room is haunted by seven pirates! The motley crew is hoping that Lewis can help them get back to their ship, now on display in the local museum -- but Lewis is not sure he's the bold and capable lad they're looking for. In fact, he's pretty sure he's the opposite of bold and capable!

What a fun read! I just enjoyed this book all the way through. The pirates are a delight, and Lewis is believable (though he seems a bit young for his age). I'll certainly recommend this to young readers looking for a swashbuckling tale.

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

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell -- To the wealthy elite of St. Petersburg, wolves are good luck. To General Rakov, commander of the Tsar's armies, wolves are vermin. To Feo and her mother, however, wolves are family. And when the wolves of the wealthy turn on their owners, those wolves are sent to Feo and her mother, who return them to the wild. When General Rakov imprisons Feo's mother, Feo determines to break her mother out of prison. She and her wolves make their way to the city, but along the way, they pick up Ilya, a former child soldier who dreams of being a dancer, Alexei, a teenage revolutionary, and a band of children, all of whom have seen first-hand the devastation wrought by Rakov. Feo's rescue attempt is starting to look more like a revolution!

This is a lovely and atmospheric tale. The writing style will be immediately recognizable to readers who have enjoyed Rundell's other works. I had a little trouble staying engaged in the story, but I think I was just not in the mood; I don't think the book was at fault. The characters and setting are exceptionally strong, and the emotions run deep in this book. Readers who love Russia, wolves, or good writing should pick this one up.

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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George

Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George -- Cousins Dacia and Louisa are both excited and nervous about visiting Romania and meeting their mothers' family. There seems to be some sort of family secret, and nobody will explain it to them. When they learn the truth, it will be more shocking than they could have guessed.

This book has a lot of excellent elements, though it falls short of distinction in a few ways. I liked the two main characters, though they were hard to tell apart, at least at the beginning. I also found the love interests... interesting. I wanted to see more development of those stories, because they really took a backseat to the main action of the story. This was probably as it should be, but I think a little more attention could have been paid to that aspect of the book, because it felt a bit rushed. The pacing lagged in places, though I don't know if I would have noticed that if I had not been listening to the audiobook. I also felt that the villains were flat, entirely evil and without nuance. All that said, I did enjoy the book. Many of the secondary characters are well-written and the setting is fairly good. Mostly, I wanted a little bit more from this book, but I liked the things it did accomplish. I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy books like Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing.

(Reviewed from an audiobook received courtesy of the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles -- Biddy and Quincy are both in the Special Ed program at school, but that doesn't mean that they have anything in common. When their social worker arranges for the two of them to live together after graduation, both girls have their doubts, but they will soon learn that they can be stronger together than they were on their own. This is a skillfully written book with a lot of heart. Biddy and Quincy's struggles are touching and relatable, and there are surprising flashes of humor as well. Highly recommended.

(Reviewed from an electronic copy borrowed through my library system.)

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle -- Orphaned Warren is heir to the family hotel, but until he comes of age the hotel is managed by his lazy uncle Rupert and Rupert's evil wife Annaconda. Warren believes that Annaconda only married Rupert in order to get her hands on the legendary All-Seeing Eye, thought to be hidden somewhere in the hotel. Warren doesn't know where the Eye is, but he knows he'd better find it before Aunt Annaconda does!

This is a fun, quirky tale (appropriate, considering the publisher) that relies equally on text and illustrations. The secondary characters are a bit flat, and I thought the plot took some leaps in unexpected directions, but the story is generally enjoyable and the pacing is good. This tale is the sort that readers of The Mysterious Benedict Society and Floors ought to investigate.

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky

Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky -- Four teenage superfans of a popular boy band inadvertently kidnap a member of the band. Hijinks ensue. This was an okay read for me. The plot was engrossing enough that I finished it in a day, but I didn't like any of the characters (which may have been kinda the point, but still). I can totally see this being made into a teen movie someday.

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

Christy and Todd: The Married Years trilogy by Robin Jones Gunn

Forever With You, Home of Our Hearts, and One More Wish by Robin Jones Gunn constitute a trilogy continuing the story of some of this prolific inspirational romance author's best-loved characters. Christy and Todd are a young married couple just out of college. Over the course of these three books, they face challenges with jobs, finances, and housing. They learn to communicate and compromise, and start planning for the future, including the possibility of children. They also reconnect with many old friends known to Gunn's readers from other connected stories.

I probably would not recommend these books as a starting point for readers unfamiliar with Gunn's works -- she uses this trilogy to tie up several loose ends and catch up with many old characters. Readers who have not already "met" Doug and Tracy, Katie and Eli, Sierra and Jordan, and the many others who appear in these pages would probably be a bit confused -- like going to a party where you don't know anyone, but everyone seems to know everyone else. On the other hand, readers who are familiar with Gunn's stories will enjoy catching up with everyone. Gunn's greatest strength as an author is her skill at creating memorable, relatable characters. I felt that the writing was rather weak compared to some of her earlier works (I always feel that the Glenbrooke series is her best). In this trilogy the authorial voice veered to the preachy side at times, which I've never noticed before in Gunn's writing. I also found myself occasionally rolling my eyes at the coy references to sex. I get the feeling that Gunn was taking special pains to keep the books squeaky clean for the youngest and most innocent of her readers, but it comes across a bit stilted. Of course, none of that kept me from burning through these books in a very short amount of time. I appreciate getting some closure for several long-running story lines, and I hope to see Gunn move on to focus on creating some new characters for her readers to enjoy. (When I saw the title of this series, I joked, "What next? Christy and Todd: The Parenting Years? Christy and Todd: Midlife Crisis? Christy and Todd: The Retirement Years? Christy and Todd: Til Death Do Us Part?" I think I may be kind of over Christy and Todd.)

(Reviewed from my personally purchased electronic copies.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo -- A wealthy and powerful man has a job that needs to be done. It won't be easy. In fact, some might say it's impossible. But if Kaz can pull it off, the rewards will be enormous. Kaz pulls his team together: Inej, Jesper, Nina, Wylan, and Matthias. They've never worked together before, and some of them hate each other, but Kaz needs the unique skills and knowledge that each of them brings to the table. Will it be enough?

What can I say: I'm a sucker for a good fantasy heist novel. This one has seamless plotting and snappy dialogue -- Jesper's quips had me snorting with laughter more than once. The characters are complex and a real mix of good and bad, and none of them are completely and immediately likable, though I found that they mostly grew on me over the course of the novel. This book was recommended to me because I enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora, and I think that recommendation is a good one. If you liked that, you should try this -- and if you enjoy this, keep an eye out for that if you haven't already read it.

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