Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Carrier of the Mark

Carrier of the Mark (Carrier, book one)
By Leigh Fallon, read by Nicola Barber
Published 2011 by HarperCollins

Megan is surprised that the move to Ireland seems to have been for the best - she's getting along great with her dad and feels right at home with a new group of friends. She's even caught the eye of the very handsome Adam and it doesn't seem like it will be long before they're a couple. But it's never that simple and Megan is about to discover her complication - she and Adam are part of something ancient and powerful, something with the potential to destroy the world.

So this was a random audiobook download for me earlier this year. I remember seeing this book around, but I didn't know much about it and didn't know anyone who'd read it. I'm willing to give pretty much anything a shot, so there I went.

Perhaps the best I can say for this book is that I enjoyed the reader. Barber does a lovely set of Irish accents that I very much enjoyed listening to. Unfortunately, this book pretty much fails for me on every other account.

It's amazing to me that this book was published in 2011 because it is so clearly derivative of Twilight that it's almost painful. I mean, even the small details are the same - girl moves to a remote small town, becomes the object of a strange group's attention, and falls instantly and hopelessly in love with a boy who can not possibly be good for her. I mean, some of the character's names even start with the same letters. While the books are not exact carbon copies, the similarities are remarkable. I realize that, once you find a successful formula, why deviate? But this is pretty extreme.

There are no vampires or werewolves in this version, though, and Megan is found to be one of the "special" people quite quickly (instead of taking four books for Bella's transformation into a vampire). The supernatural piece here is focused on magic and the elements - each member of Megan's group has power over a particular element. They must practice and train to harness the power, and the mixing of the elements must be handled very carefully. This obviously throws a wrench in Megan and Adam's relationship, but they don't seem terribly concerned.

This book definitely has the appeal factors of Twilight, so if you have readers that want more of the same, it's safe to point them towards this book. However, for me, not being a fan of Stephanie Meyer's, I didn't really enjoy this one either. If I get bored or in need of some more Irish accents in my life, I might listen to book two, but don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: Mortal Fire

Mortal Fire
By Elizabeth Knox
Published 2013 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Canny Mochrie is stubborn and brilliant - so when she stumbles upon a valley full of magic, she's going to figure out how it works, even if the people of the valley start threatening her. Things are made more complicated by a mysterious boy trapped by the magic, a boy Canny feels a strong connection to. With his help, she'll uncover the magic's secrets and, perhaps, find a way to set him free.

You guys. We have to be real for a minute here. So, I've never read Elizabeth Knox before, but her previous books sounded intriguing and have been on my radar for a long time. When I saw this title pop up in likely Printz contender discussions last year, I was thrilled I'd managed to snag an ARC at TLA. And then, the ridiculousness happened.

The ridiculousness is this: I started this book in July of last year (that's 2013, just to be clear). I hated it. I hated it from page one. I still hated it by page 250, and probably hated it for quite a few pages after that. So, about halfway through, I just put it aside. But I never said I was quitting it. It is really hard for me to quit a book, particularly when I've invested any kind of time in it, and particularly when it is getting so much positive buzz. So, I never thought to myself I was putting it down for good. It's pretty much the first book I picked back up when I started my year of no library books - I was determined to put this bad boy to rest. And, in more ridiculousness, this book proved to me why I hate to give up on books. Because, by the time I finished it, I didn't hate it anymore.

So, let's try to break it down a bit. Why, exactly, did I despise this book so much (I think, over on Someday My Printz Will Come I actually used the word abhor)? Well, it's perhaps the most slow-paced book I've ever read. Seriously. By the time I put it down that first time, nearly nothing exciting had happened. It's glacial. Everything is just so drawn out; I had a hard time staying interested. My second problem was the characters - couldn't stand 'em. Any of them. But especially not Canny. And, you know, she's the main character and all. I found her so bleeding obnoxious that I had zero desire to keep reading her story. Her brother and his girlfriend were not much better, and neither were any of the Zarenes, though, eventually, I became interested in their story. And thirdly, this book is just confusing. Apparently, Knox's books are usually set in an alternate version of New Zealand called Southland, which incorporates magic into the real world. Additionally, this book takes place in the 1950s version of this world. I found the whole thing confusing as there was little to no explanation of the magic or how it worked until very far into the book. I would have liked some clarification earlier on. All in all, this book and I were just not getting along. So, I set it down.

Now, to the beginning of 2014, when I am determined to clear out some of the books in my house and pass them on to new homes. I declare this the year of no library books. And this book sits on my desk at work, haunting me with its bookmark halfway through. So, I pick it up again.

And I still can't stand Canny or Sholto or Susan or nearly any of the Zarenes. I still find the magic mostly just confusing, almost belligerently so. But, the action starts to pick up pace. We find out more of the history of the Zarenes, in particular, the strange one that Canny has discovered trapped in a house by magic. And by the time I finish soldiering through those last 200 pages or so, I find myself telling people I liked the book.

What gives? Well, I can't exactly say. But something happened in that second half that almost made me forget how much I hated the first half (almost, but I hated it so much that it would be pretty near impossible for me to completely forget). I guess the story picking up its pace just grabbed me in a way that made me enjoy that last bit. I'd almost rather that I hated the book all the way through the end - it's really difficult for me to quit reading a book I'm not enjoying and in a couple of cases, I've actually changed my mind about one by the time I got to the end. This makes it even more difficult in the future for me to quit books I don't like. So, curse you, Elizabeth Knox, for making me change my mind about this book!

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than Ever
By Tim Federle, read by the author
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Audio

All Nate has ever wanted is to star in a Broadway show. When he hears about an open casting call for E.T. The Musical, all it takes is a little nudge from his friend and Nate finds himself on an overnight adventure to New York City, taking his chance. Of course, his adventure is a secret and surely will go off without any problems, right?

I think the best possible word to describe this book is infectious. I know, I know - that word doesn't necessarily have the best connotations. But it's really the best word, and I think that's particularly true for the audio version of this story. Nate's enthusiasm and positivity are infectious and Federle's narration of his own book captures that infectious nature perfectly.

Nate is an absolutely charming, if slightly exasperating, narrator. For most of the book, I wanted to be his best friend, but I also wanted to shake him a little. But even my exasperation with him was mostly because of his charm - he thinks everything about his trip to New York will be perfect if he just tries his best. He also thinks New York is a city full of magic, leading him to look at even the most mundane things through magic-filled eyes. This could completely backfire and come off as insincere and cloying, but Federle makes it work perfectly. It's such a thrilling sense of appreciation that Nate has; it reminded me of being young and discovering new things and what amazing potential they held.

This book is full of so much charm and completely perfect turns of phrase. Federle was clearly born to write this book. There are lots of little lessons sprinkled throughout the story, feeling quite natural. I think reading this book will leave any reader a better and more compassionate person. I'm very much looking forward to picking up Nate's next adventure.

Also, my personal new favorite things: failed Broadway show curses. This is only the most genius thing ever. Thank you, Mr. Federle.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

By Tim Warnes
Published 2014 by Tiger Tales
Mole likes to label things, but when he comes across something he's never seen before, how will be label it? This is a really cute book, particularly appealing to analytical-minded children who like to understand things in certain ways. This book is great for vocabulary and can easily lend itself to extension activities. The illustrations are bold and suit the text well. A lot of fun - I'd like to use this in a storytime and see how the kids react.

Big and Small
By Elizabeth Bennett, illustrated by Jane Chapman
Published 2014 by Tiger Tales
I picked this one up because of the illustrations by Jane Chapman - I love her soft, friendly style, so I'm always willing to check out a book she's illustrated. This is a very lovely story of a friendship between Big and Small (a bear and a mouse), showcasing how they help each other throughout their day. The text highlights big and small differences, making this a good book for showcasing print awareness. It's an adorable way to show that we all need help sometimes, even when we are big.

Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale
By Sally Lloyd-Jones
Published 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
Wow, I read this book quite some time ago and forgot about it, but now I'm kicking myself because it's actually pretty great. Doreen is a little round fish who sets out to visit a distant relative. She gets a bit, shall we say, sidetracked and winds up on someone's hook. But that's not the end of Doreen's adventure. This book is definitely going to be a hit in storytime because the contrast between Doreen's point of view and the narrator's is quite significant. It provides for a lot of humor and kids will love being in on it as Doreen cluelessly makes her way to her destination. The illustrations excellently evoke the watery nature of the story. I'm glad I reminded myself of this book so I can use it with an audience soon!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: "The President Has Been Shot!"

"The President Has Been Shot!": The Assassination of John  F. Kennedy
By James L. Swanson
Published 2013 by Scholastic Press

It's a moment that our nation will never forget - John F. Kennedy, one of our most charismatic presidents, assassinated in Dallas. In this book, Swanson recounts the events leading up to that terrible moment - and the consequences felt nationwide.

This was the last of the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction titles I read before the awards were announced - actually, I think I might have finished it right after the announcement. Either way, I waited impatiently for a copy to come in at the library - I visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas a couple years ago, a very interesting experience.

The Kennedy assassination is a moment in history that I've heard about my whole life. My parents were both too young to remember it (though it did happen on my father's birthday). I've heard the conspiracies surrounding the assassination my whole life as well. It's a moment in history that continues to fascinate us. Reading Swanson's account makes it easy to see why.

Swanson has done an excellent job of crafting a compelling narrative of the days leading up to the assassination and the people involved. Readers learn about John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Lee Harvey Oswald. It's fascinating to read about all these individuals, knowing that their lives are about to intersect in one terrible way. While I understand some people's reluctance to learn about Lee Harvey Oswald (and other sensational killers), I found Swanson's account of his life completely engrossing. I had no idea what kind of life he'd lived and what drove him to this defining act.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is how "in the moment" Swanson makes readers feel. It was frustrating to read small instances where, if only a different choice had been made, the assassination might have been avoided. I appreciated that Swanson took the story into the assassination of Oswald as well - an action that should never have occurred. To me, it's quite clear that Swanson did an immense amount of research to present the story as he did, providing information and insights that were entirely new to me (so sure to be new to young readers). The photos that accompany the text are excellently chosen as well.

An awesome example of meaty non-fiction to hand to middle-grade/young adult readers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: Beware the Wild

Beware the Wild
By Natalie C. Parker
Expected publication October 21, 2014 by HarperTeen

Sterling and her brother had a pretty epic argument and he ran into the swamp. But she never expected him to disappear - and a girl claiming to be her sister to take his place. It isn't long before she realizes that no one remembers him - except, perhaps, slightly strange Heath. Can Sterling figure out what's happened and find a way to bring her brother back?

Well, I've said before I'm a sucker for a teen novel, particularly a fantasy, so that's probably how I ended up with this one in my reading queue. The summary had a slightly gothic sound to it, so I was definitely game to give it a shot.

Maybe I'm also a sucker for books set in the swampy south, but this definitely had atmosphere going for it. It was not at all difficult to picture Sticks, LA and the somewhat sinister swampland that surrounds it. Is it just that our culture has created a mythology around the South and its land that it has become the easiest atmosphere to evoke? Maybe, but either way, it works for Parker here. I loved the descriptions of the swamp and the crumbling Lillard House.

I liked that the main thrust of this story is a twist on a changeling tale - Sterling's brother goes into the swamp and Lenora May comes out. In this case, though, all memories of Phineas have been erased as well, replaced with memories of a life with Lenora May. Sterling is protected because of a charm she wears, but I liked Parker's descriptions of the two sets of memories existing next to each other in Sterling's mind. I liked the relationship that evolved with Heath, who also lost someone he cared about to the swamp and is the only one who can remember. I appreciated that they had a history as well, instead of just two strangers thrown together by circumstance who somehow find time to fall in love while also fixing what the magic has set awry.

Okay, the following may be a bit spoilery, so consider yourself warned and stop reading if you don't want to know. For a good long while, I wondered if this was going to end up being another supernatural book that wasn't really about the supernatural - it was instead a manifestation of some illness or disorder. See, Sterling has developed a bit of an eating disorder because of the stress of her brother's plans for the future. So I spent a good chunk of the book wondering if this was all going to somehow end up being a product of Sterling's starving mind. I'm not sure if I would have liked the book more or less had this been the case, but it would have been an interesting dynamic if Parker had chosen that route. Regardless, I thought Sterling's eating disorder played an interesting role in the story and I liked that it clearly wasn't about any desire to be skinny - it was about the lack of control she felt in the rest of her life.

More potential spoilery stuff so keep looking away if you'd like! I was a little sad when it became clear early on that the real villain was exceptionally obvious. I would have liked it a bit better if it hadn't been clear that the person Sterling initially suspected was just another victim of the real baddie.

In the end, I liked this book well enough, despite its lack of surprises. It was atmospheric with interesting enough characters to keep me reading and see how it all would work out. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Salt & Storm

Salt & Storm
By Kendall Kulper
Published 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The only thing Avery wants is to claim her rightful place, her destiny - the Roe witch. Unfortunately, her mother is doing everything in her power to stop it. But when Avery has a dream about her own murder, she becomes desperate to awaken her powers. Desperate enough to agree to help Tane, a tattooed stranger with power of his own. Will he be Avery's salvation or her downfall?

Witches - I know, they're a little old school, but I like a good witch story. I was drawn to the premise of this one - a girl being denied her birthright - as well as the simple yet eye-catching cover (I know, very superficial of me, but sometimes it's true!). Sadly, this book didn't quite live up to my hopes for it.

While I did sympathize with Avery and her anger at her mother for denying her, it was also pretty clear to me that the whole situation was much more complicated than Avery was able to see. This made it difficult for me to be completely on Avery's side against her mother - I believed that her mother knew things she didn't about the magic and really was trying to protect her daughter (though, obviously not in the healthiest way). Additionally, I found most of the plot pretty predictable and unexciting. For a story about witches, it seemed a little less than thrilling. I also found the romance pretty problematic - well, Tane's whole character actually was problematic for me. I suppose I should have expected that this story would mostly devolve into a romance, but I didn't, and I found that a pretty disappointing turn of events.

Overall, I thought the book was relatively well-written. Kulper does a nice job with the setting and, when she bothers, I was interested in hearing the history of the Roe women. Unfortunately, she focused more on the romance, losing my interest in the story.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.