Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel
By Sara Farizan

Published 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers

Leila has mostly slipped under the radar in high school, though her Persian heritage means she still sticks out a bit. But imagine how much worse it would be if everyone knew she liked girls! Thankfully, no one has caught Leila's eye - until the beautiful Saskia arrives. Soon, Leila is trying her hardest to express her feelings but also keep her secret. Can she keep it in balance or will everyone find out what she's tried to hide?

I downloaded this because of the tremendous praise I'd heard about Farizan's first novel, which published last year. I haven't read that one yet, but hearing such good things about it inspired me to read the e-galley of this when I saw it was available. I'm left wishing I'd started with her debut.

Don't get me wrong, this book is not bad. I think I just expected more than what I got. With so much praise for her debut, I expected great things from this sophomore effort. Unfortunately, I didn't really get them.

I wanted to like this book - I am always looking for great GLBT lit for kids, and I appreciate when multiple diverse identities are incorporated into a character (after all, aren't we more than just one identifier?) . So, I really liked that Farizan was telling a story of a gay Persian girl. The problem, for me, is that's pretty much all Leila ever felt like. What I mean is that this book just felt a little too simple all around. The characterizations are rather thin, the dialogue feels inauthentic, and most of the time it felt like Farizan was dumbing things down for readers. The plot was incredibly simplistic and every twist felt obvious. I think I just wanted a deeper story than what Farizan gave us.

As I said, it's not terrible - there were moments of levity that I enjoyed and I think it's an important book to be on our shelves for teens to discover. I just hoped for greater things.

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: They All Fall Down

They All Fall Down
By Roxanne St. Claire
Published 2014 by Delacorte Press

Kenzie doesn't know how, but somehow she's made it onto the list - the Hottie List. Every year, ten girls are chosen, and this year, Kenzie is one of them. But when the girls on the list start dying in extraordinary accidents, Kenzie knows she must uncover the list's secrets before it's too late.

I'm just going to say it. The whole reason I downloaded the e-galley of this is because I was hoping for something like old-school Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine - the incredibly cheesy teen "horror" novels I devoured when I was younger. And I think if you're going to read this book, too, that's not a bad way to approach it.

I mean, this book is pretty cheesy. Kenzie (and most of the other characters) is not much more than a cookie-cutter version of a teenager. The whole premise reeks of cheese - a list of hot girls who start to die mysteriously and the one girl who must try to unravel the mystery before it's her turn. It's like a typical slasher flick - the pretty young girls are always the most at risk of being murdered. Of course, St. Claire tries to make it her own with a few details - these murders look like terribly unfortunate accidents. Kenzie, our Final Girl if you will (thank you Carol Clover), is perplexed by her own appearance on the list because she is nerdy and smart (thanks for reinforcing the smart vs. pretty dichotomy, St. Claire). However, of course Kenzie's smarts come in handy as she unravels the mystery of the murders.

There is also a romance thrown in, which I found utterly ridiculous. It seemed mostly to undermine Kenzie's character and give her something extra to worry about because the love interest was also being targeted and in danger. It almost felt like the romance was only there because St. Claire felt it was obligatory to include one.

I will admit that I didn't see the end coming. The truth behind the mystery was definitely a surprise, though I'm not sure how good that is in this case. The reveal feels quite rushed and confusing and continues the general negative tone toward women. The ending sets up pretty clearly for some sort of sequel, but I can't imagine a premise that would make me want to pick it up.

Overall, many of the characterizations and the treatment of women are problematic. The premise and how it plays out is cheesy to the max. If you take it all with a grain of salt, you might enjoy it.

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: The Death Cure

The Death Cure (Maze Runner, book three)
By James Dashner
Published 2011 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

WARNING: There will likely be spoilers ahead. Read my reviews of books one and two first.

Thomas and his friends have, against all odds, survived the Maze and the Scorch. They've made it to WICKED. Will they find the answers they're looking for?

If you read my reviews of the first two books in the series, you can see that they're not exactly glowing. I'm afraid this will be more of the same.

As I've mentioned a time or two before, I'm pretty far behind on writing my reviews. I'm still struggling with figuring out how to stay on top of this, but, in the meantime, I've got a backlog built up. This means that, frequently, I'm reviewing the books quite some time after finishing reading them. This can sometimes be a good thing - with more time to think about the book, my thoughts tend to gel better, and the distance can give me some perspective on the book that I might not have had if I reviewed it straightaway. But, of course, this can also obviously be a bad thing, as is the case here: when a book was so forgettable and not my cup of tea that I can barely remember it enough to review it.

If you recall, my fiancee was pretty much the driving force behind my reading the rest of this series in any sort of timely manner. He liked the books, but I think mostly he wanted to get to the answers. As I checked the books out for him, I read them myself, as long as I could squeeze them into one checkout period. I read books two and three a couple months apart and I still haven't read the prequel (which my fiancee says he liked best of them all).

As I said, I found this book pretty forgettable. I think what I remember most are my emotions while reading. For the majority of the read, I was aggravated - aggravated at the characters for the ways in which they were acting (which was frequently inconsistent with how they'd acted previously) and aggravated at Dashner for dragging out the story and not providing the answers I'd hoped for. Now, it seems as if one MUST read the prequel in order to get any sort of closure with the series, a frustrating turn of events for me. If you're giving me a trilogy, I expect a trilogy, and I expect some answers by the time we're done. I can definitely see why some people gave up on this series partway through - it just doesn't live up to expectations. However, I know this series also has its fans and I can see their side as well - the action is pretty relentless, so if that's the kind of read you're looking for, you probably won't be disappointed by these. Personally, though, I don't think I'll be giving Dashner any more chances.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

How to Babysit a Grandma
By Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish
Published 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
This is a companion book to the similarly titled How to Babysit a Grandpa, which I absolutely loved when I read. This book is basically that book all over again, though this time focusing on a little girl and her grandmother. These books are great fun because they are silly and appeal to both kids and adults. Instructions for babysitting grandmas include checking out all the wonderful things at the park and letting her pick the best spot to sleep. This book is just downright adorable and will definitely inspire some babysitting hijinks in young readers.

The Odd One Out
By Britta Teckentrup
Published 2014 by Big Picture Press
Though this is not a storybook, I still loved this. It's a lovely seek-and-find title for the very youngest readers. Each double page spread shows a cadre of similar animals - turtles on one page, lemurs on another - and asks readers to find the odd one out - the one who caught the worm, the one who has a baby, etc. Kids (and adults, too!) love seek-and-find books and we get increasing requests for those for the very young. This book is a lovely addition to the genre. The illustrations are quite beautiful and I loved the variety of animals chosen.

Mama Built a Little Nest
By Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Published 2014 by Beach Lane Books
You know, I don't love birds, but I do love picture books that are simple enough to use in storytime but also provide nonfiction information to relate the story to the real world. This book does just that in a lovely way, focusing on the different kinds of nests birds build for their young. The main text has a nice simple rhythm that makes this a good choice for a bird storytime. There is some real-life information presented on every spread to explain about the kind of nest shown in each illustration. Even this information is written simply enough that even a storytime crowd could understand it. The illustrations are in Jenkins' signature style and they are beautiful to look at. A delightful book.

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.