Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Ms. Rapscott's Girls

Ms. Rapscott's Girls
By Elise Primavera
Published 2015 by Dial Books

Four young girls find themselves shipped off to the Great Rapscott School for Daughters of Busy Parents. There are supposed to be five. The four who arrive safely begin learning the lessons of Great Rapscott and soon, will venture out in hopes of finding the fifth girl.

This e-galley came to me as part of Penguin's Young Readers Author Program. I was excited because it sounded like it could be a quick and fun read.

Unfortunately, this book just wasn't my cup of tea. It is full of Capitalized Phrases that are supposed to Accentuate the Important Bits but really just annoyed me. It is twee as all get out - and if you'd asked me prior to reading to define twee, I couldn't have, but now I know - it is this book. It's fascinating because I can see what company this book should keep - Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mary Poppins, even a more upbeat version of Series of Unfortunate Events - and it's full of books I love and this one I just didn't.

The characters are never really differentiated, at least not in any truly meaningful way, which made it difficult for me to really care much about what happened to them or even feel much sympathy that they were packed off to Great Rapscott in the first place. I think we are supposed to believe that the girls grow up during the course of the story, but it felt very superficial to me. Additionally, the audience for this is a bit hard for me to peg down - strong new chapter book readers? It reads a bit too young for me to think middle-grade readers will really find it appealing, but perhaps a second or third-grader would enjoy it.

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: Redwall

Redwall (Redwall, book one)
By Brian Jacques, performed by a full cast
Published 2005 by Listening Library

Cluny the Scourge is about to lead an attack on Redwall Abbey and it is up to young Matthias, a mouse who longs to be a hero, to discover his birthright and protect the Abbey.

My fiance and I recently took a trip to Maine, planning to settle some details for our upcoming wedding. We also planned an excursion for a few days up the coast, a chance to take a small break. Both of these plans meant several hours in the car, so we decided we needed an audiobook to listen to. Since we were picking one at the last minute, it was a bit of a scramble. I stumbled upon this one and (jokingly) suggested it. I should have known better.

The Redwall series is one of his favorites from childhood - he actually met Brian Jacques in high school, I think. I have never read any of them - I'm not big into animal fantasy. But, it is a classic series, so I planned on reading it eventually, and I knew my fiance wanted to reread it as well. So I guess it was lucky for us that the downloadable audiobook was available when we needed something to listen to.

It's a pretty enjoyable story and I can definitely see the appealing factors - heroism, puzzles, quests, memorable characters, fierce battles. It has all the makings of an epic story (and I'm quite surprised that it's only been made into a film once). There were a few moments when the story lost my interest (though that may have had more to do with my travel fatigue than the story itself) but for the most part, the action kept moving nicely. I loved the riddles as Matthias tries to figure out where Martin the Warrior hid his great sword. What I think Jacques has done best is the creation of a plethora of fascinating characters. They are all unique and memorable and I really enjoyed getting to know each of them (though some I wish had been more clearly developed).

My main quibbles with this comes from the format. I think this actually works quite well as an audiobook - there is enough action to keep listeners engaged throughout, though the number of characters could be overwhelming. However, the version we listened to was performed by a full cast and it was a bit too much for me. In fact, it was extremely off-putting initially and, actually, we mostly made fun of the ridiculous accents throughout the story. Because each character is performed by a different actor (or simply a different voice), that certainly helps eliminate any confusion over the characters. But, as I said, most of them are given quite absurd accents (Cluny the Scourge being, by far, the worst), which actually makes the book difficult to listen to at times. When a listener is focusing more on how something is being said instead of what is actually being said, it's not really a good thing. Eventually, we were mostly able to ignore the accents and lose ourselves in the story, but it was pretty difficult at first.

Will I continue the series? I'd like to, but I've got several other things I'm much more excited about first, so we'll see when I can find time for it.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Love, Aubrey

Love, Aubrey
By Suzanne LaFleur, read by Becca Battoe
Published 2009 by Listening Library

Aubrey's life hasn't been the same since the accident, but she never expected it to get this bad. She is all set to start a new life on her own, until her grandmother shows up with other plans. Now Aubrey is having to adjust to a new way of living and wondering if things will ever be the same again.

So, I decided to go way back to the beginning of my TBR when I needed a new audiobook to listen to. Unsurprisingly, most of the things on my TBR were not available as downloadable audiobooks, but I persevered, planning on downloading the first one I could find that was available. This book was the winner.

Unfortunately, I feel mostly ambivalent about this one. In the beginning, it reminded me of Summer of the Gypsy Moths (which was, of course, published much later than this one) and I struggled with the believability of the first part of this story. Thankfully, that didn't last terribly long before we are pushed into the main part of the story - Aubrey living with her grandmother and adjusting to the fact that life is going to be much different from now on. However, I struggled with this part as well. I realize, of course, that grief looks different on everyone and even on the same person in different situations. But Aubrey's form of grief was particularly upsetting to me. In fact, there is so much vomiting in this book that, at times, I began to feel ill just listening to it. Perhaps that's an overly sympathetic reaction from me, but I certainly didn't enjoy that aspect of the story.

Additionally, once Aubrey is taken in by her grandmother, things seem a bit too tidy - she makes a friend quite easily, one who happens to have a little sister and loving parents (who fulfill those roles for Aubrey as well). Though she is reluctant at first to cooperate with her new school counselor, it's pretty clear that she will and that things will work out for her when she does. Much like Gypsy Moths, I appreciated that Aubrey's happy ending was perhaps not the one that would be expected. I think it worked well and I would have been disappointed in a different ending, I think.

As an audio, this worked all right, though, as I said, all the vomiting was a bit difficult to listen to (not that there was actual vomiting noises - that would have been much worse). I thought Battoe did a lovely job distinguishing between characters - I particularly loved Gram and Bridget's younger sister's (whose name escapes me at the moment) voices.

Ultimately, an interesting read that is both quite sad but also shows a great amount of growth.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review: 5 to 1

5 to 1
By Holly Bodger
Expected publication May 12, 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Sudasa lives in a world where women are highly valued; after all, there is only one of them for every five boys. Because of this, a series of tests has emerged, allowing each boy a chance to prove his worthiness for a wife. But Sudasa is not content with this version of her future. And neither is Kiran, one of the boys undergoing the tests for a chance to win her. Can they find a way to change the path that has been laid out for them?

My interest in this one was piqued by the premise, particularly when I thought of it in relation to countries that not only value men above women (which, I'm sorry, but that's the vast majority of them), but also institute policies like China's one-child policy. It wasn't hard for me to imagine the premise of this novel actually coming to pass in a not too distant future. I was even more intrigued by discovering this was partly in verse, a particular weakness of mine.

Despite my initial interest in this book, I find myself at a bit of a loss when it comes to pinpointing my feelings about it. I enjoyed the dual narration, and I liked the contrast of the verse and the prose. I liked that this book provided a glimpse into a future that truly seems possible - as unsettling as that may be to realize. And I was eager for a YA novel set in a culture we don't usually see a lot of in teen fiction.

But. I felt like there was a lot of missed opportunity here. The book doesn't focus on anything but the Tests that Sudasa and Kiran are participating in and takes place over the course of only a few days. I longed to see more of the culture and world. The explanation for how the Tests came to be is there, but I felt like it could have been fleshed out more fully, and could have highlighted even more of the important issues surrounding a practice such as the one described here. I wanted to know more about Sudasa's family's involvement in the creation of the state in which they live and I wanted to know more about Kiran's family as well.

Quite honestly, I didn't buy into the understanding that blossoms between Sudasa and Kiran either - they barely speak to each other, but seem to instantly know what the other is trying to subtly say or how the other feels. It just felt a bit too convenient and forced for me. Additionally, I felt the ending was a bit abrupt and unsatisfactory. It perhaps foretells a sequel, so I suppose I'll see if my inklings about that are accurate.

Overall, a quick and thought-provoking read, but I think it fell a bit short.

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
By Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath
Expected publication May 12, 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Sophie is struggling to adjust to her new life on the farm - her mother is busy, her dad is out of work, and she misses Los Angeles. But when she discovers some unusual chickens hanging around, things start to get a bit more interesting - particularly as it seems someone intends to steal these chickens. What's so unusual about them? And how can Sophie protect them?

First, sorry about the lack of posts here over the past week or so - I was on vacation (you know, doing real life things) and didn't have things scheduled to run the whole time I was gone. Also, my reading has been bogged down for the last couple of weeks in my book club book (which I finally finished), so I didn't have much to review. Lucky for you all, I always read more than one book at a time, so I did finish up a couple of things recently. Anyway, on to the review.

I downloaded this e-galley because it sounded like it could be cute. Birds are definitely not my thing, but this looked like it might be a fun read. I really like epistolary novels, so that aspect definitely appealed to me, and I appreciated the person of color heroine.

This book was mostly just what I expected. It's a very fun and quick read, with very charming characters. Perhaps what I liked most was that this book addresses issues of race and poverty in a very straightforward and realistic way. I think it works exceptionally well here, and I'm pleased to see an author unafraid to tackle some of these issues in a book for middle-grade readers. This is Sophie's story, and I found her to be a very endearing heroine. Her sincere attempts at uncovering the mystery of the chickens while also trying to help out her parents felt truthful to me and it would be very difficult not to root for her. I think the epistolary style works well for this story - you really get a great sense of Sophie's voice through her letters. The only thing I didn't really love was the little twist at the end with the farm supply woman with whom Sophie has been corresponding. Everything else, though, was quite enjoyable. This will be a bit of a hard sell in my library, where books like Regarding the Fountain have been withdrawn due to low circulation, but I'll try to encourage readers to give this one a shot.

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review: Legends Begin

The Legends Begin (Darkmouth, book one)
By Shane Hegarty
Published 2015 by HarperCollins

Finn is the only son of the last remaining Legend Hunter. That means it's his dad's job to keep Legends (minotaurs and the like) from destroying the world we know. Soon, it will be Finn's job. Only one problem - he's terrible at it. Unfortunately, Finn doesn't have much time to improve - Darkmouth (where he lives) is the only place still plagued by Legends and they are about to plan a larger attack than ever before.

I downloaded this galley because it was a fantastical middle grade title - right in my wheelhouse. I didn't have a lot of expectations going in, which I think is sometimes best.

This is definitely a fun read - there are a lot of humorous interactions between the characters and I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud a number of times. My one quibble with the humor is that I think the relationship between Finn and his dad is supposed to be played for laughs, but it really just made me a bit sad. I wanted Finn to be able to talk to his parents about his wishes and it was disappointing that his dad seemed to be just another example of a not-great parent in a kid's book.

I think this book will definitely have fans - fantasy seems to be perennially popular with young people and this capitalizes on the current mythology craze by including some Legends kids will definitely have heard of. As I said, it's fun, and the chapters are short, so that keeps the action moving along quite nicely.

My own baggage as a reader made a lot of this pretty predictable - from the real story behind Emmie to the reveal of the bad guy to the prophecy bit to the ending. It's not a bad thing if readers can see some things coming (certainly, some readers find this kind of thing comforting), but perhaps I am just a bit worn out on this kind of speculative fiction. Additionally, the e-galley did not have the majority of the illustrations, which would have helped - some of the Legends described were very hard to picture. On a related note, I was a bit troubled that the setting of this wasn't clear until a few chapters in - Darkmouth is in Ireland and, though there are definite hints at a European setting, it's not made immediately clear. Something small, but it bothered me a bit. Finally, as this is merely book one of a series, there are many questions left to be answered in future volumes.

It was a fun and quick enough read that I'll probably read book two, but I don't feel overwhelmingly awed by this one.

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

Monday, May 4, 2015

Review: None of the Above

None of the Above
By I.W. Gregorio
Published 2015 by Balzer + Bray

Kristin's life is pretty great. She's an outstanding athlete, she's just been elected Homecoming Queen, and she's crazy about her boyfriend. So crazy, in fact, that she's decided it's finally time to take the next step. But her first time is not good - so not good that she suspects something is amiss. After a trip to the doctor, Kristin discovers the truth - she's intersex. But what does that even mean? She'll have to figure it out - and fast - particularly once her diagnosis is leaked to her entire school.

This book has been on my radar for a loooooong time - honestly, I can't even remember when I first heard about it. I am always intrigued when books cover a topic that is typically ignored, particularly for young people, and this book definitely fits the bill with its exploration of intersex. I immediately added it to my TBR and was pleased to see it available for download.

I pretty much flew through this book. It's a pretty fast-paced read and once I started, I didn't want to stop - I wanted to find out where Krissy's story was going to go and how it was going to end for her. I thought Krissy was a great character - she was pretty easy to relate to and her story was believable. I appreciated that this novel was about more than just her diagnosis - she is also still dealing with the loss of her mother and the changing nature of friendships and relationships. The overwhelming emotions she feels when her diagnosis is added to this list is definitely believable.

I also appreciated the pains Gregorio took to really explain intersex and how it differs from transgender or any other diagnosis. As noted, intersex is a catch-all term for a variety of chromosomal abnormalities and they are not all explained in this book, instead focusing on the one that Krissy is diagnosed with. I think it's great that the book makes this distinction and explains that every case of an intersex diagnosis is probably going to be a bit different - which really should surprise no one, as every person is a bit different, regardless of diagnosis or no. I think this book does a great job explaining a condition that is likely to be unfamiliar to many readers without feeling like a clinical textbook.

The book does stumble a bit for me. Yes, Krissy is on a continuing journey of self-acceptance (like pretty much all teenagers), but I never really felt like she gets there. And maybe she doesn't - another intersex character she meets explains that maybe she's still coming to terms with it, years after her diagnosis. Maybe Krissy's story is the same. But the romance that comes near the end of the book seems a bit ill-placed; in a small way, it feels like Krissy doesn't really move further in her self-acceptance until her sex appeal is validated for her by another person. Additionally, I found the romance exceedingly obvious - actually, from the first appearance of the character, I could tell that Krissy was going to end up with him. I would have preferred more subtlety or no romance at all.

Ultimately, though, this was a very enjoyable read and an important one for teens. I definitely recommend this one.

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