Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: A Tale of Two Castles

A Tale of Two Castles
By Gail Carson Levine
Published 2011 by HarperTeen

Elodie longs to be a mansioner (an actress) but it seems like this dream will be near impossible to realize. She is saved by the dragon Meenore, who then sends her on a dangerous mission in the ogre's castle. Soon, Elodie finds herself in the thick of a complicated and mysterious plot.

This is, I think, only the second Levine novel I've read, after Fairest. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with that title, leading me to pick up this one in the fall. Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy this one nearly as much as the other title I'd read. I had a hard time connecting with Elodie. She was likable enough, but a bit dull. I mean, she wants to be an actress but other than that, I don't feel like I know terribly much about her. Additionally, a lot of the plot felt overly complicated and convoluted. There are a lot of things going on here but I didn't feel like any of them were handled particularly successfully. It felt like Levine had a lot of stories she wanted to tell in this world and crammed them all into this book, though, allegedly, this is the first book in a series (book two may be coming out this year, I hear). It just felt like too much for me. Finally, the writing seemed a bit simplistic. I don't need every book I read to be drenched in lovely prose, but this just felt pedestrian.

I really wanted to like this book because it looked like a fun story, but I was mostly disappointed. That being said, I think it will be a fun story for some fantasy readers, just not me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: The Beast Within

The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince
By Serena Valentino
Expected publication July 22, 2014 by Disney Press

You may think you know the story, but how did a handsome prince become the beast he is today? And is there any hope that he can change his fate?

So, a few years ago, I remember seeing Valentino's other Disney retelling, Fairest of Them All. Being a huge fan of retellings, it definitely caught my eye. I never got around to that one, but when I saw this newest title as a galley at ALA Midwinter, I was happy to take one home.

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be going back to check out Fairest of Them All. While I liked some of the ideas in this book (most notably, that Gaston and the Beast were best friends in childhood), I had many more problems. The writing is very simplistic and boring. The book relies almost exclusively on telling and not showing what is happening. In addition, I felt like Valentino was writing down to the audience, something I find quite insulting. This is supposed to be a book for teens, but it seemed like Valentino didn't believe teens could understand anything more complex than a simple sentence. There is a lack of characterization - I never cared enough about the Beast to actually care about the curse. I thought this book was supposed to give us the Beast's perspective, make him a more sympathetic character, but it just didn't work out that way. The development of Beauty and the Beast's relationship is completely out of left field and really seems unbelievable here.

I realize that this is being published by Disney, but I still wasn't expecting it to rely solely on the Disney version of the classic fairy tale. That was definitely another let-down for me. Like I said, I'm a big fan of retellings, but this one just didn't work for me.

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

Here Comes the Easter Cat
By Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda
Published 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers
This book is awesome. I mean, I know that's kind of a cop-out review, but it's also true. I loved this book and I think kids are going to love it, too. It's so much fun and also adorable and it's about a cat, so really, what's not to love? I love that the illustrations in this book are so expressive that you almost don't need the words to understand the story. I love how hard Cat tries to be fun and lovable - but he is a cat, after all. I love that there is going to be another one! Just love this book!

By Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans
Published 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
Okay, sloths are a pretty big deal right now, so this book only makes sense. I mean, who doesn't want a sloth for a pet? They are adorable and they live in a tree and they make the cutest noises ever. This book is really cute, and is great to teach kids that sometimes a pet isn't exactly the way you want it to be. But sometimes a pet can also be a surprise. Obviously, we can't encourage children to want sloths for pets, but it may make them interested in learning about the wide variety of animals out there. Plus, I mean, SLOTHS. Just so stinking cute.

Lost for Words
By Natalie Russell
Published 2014 by Peachtree Publishers
This is a cute story that shows we all have different strengths. Tapir is excited about his brand new notebook and can't wait to fill it with words - but the words are lost! So, he asks his friends for help and soon discovers that maybe he should be filling his notebook with things other than words. A sweet story and I appreciate that Tapir is the main character (quick - name another book about a tapir!). This would be a good one for early elementary readers learning about different kinds of writing and artistic expression.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Rebel Fire

Rebel Fire (Young Sherlock Holmes, book two)
By Andrew Lane
Published 2012 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Read my review of book one here.
Young Sherlock Holmes knows that his American tutor's past is a mystery to him, but even he is surprised to find Amyus Crowe mixed up in a plot that also involves John Wilkes Booth. Being who he is, Sherlock sets out to find some answers.
I downloaded the audio version of book one on a whim, but I liked it well enough to pick up book two a couple of months later. I switched formats this time, picking up a physical copy of book two instead of listening. I don't think it really impacted how I felt about the book.
So far, I think this series is a great one to recommend to fans of adventure stories. The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets started, as Sherlock seems to find himself in sticky situations quite frequently. As I admitted in my review of the first, my exposure to Sherlock Holmes is extremely limited, so I'm still not sure how the character Lane has developed fits with the character that Holmes created. From what I know of Sherlock, so far his teenaged version doesn't seem quite as peculiar as the grown-up version. He seems to socialize fine with others and doesn't seem to have that savant level of case-solving that likely develops over time. I enjoy Amyus Crowe as a character, as well as his daughter, though Lane has started to develop a bit of a romantic entanglement for Virginia and Sherlock that I'm not sure I believe. I think my favorite character is Matty - he's just fun so far.
I found the plot of this one a bit more intriguing than the first - the idea of a conspiracy that spirited John Wilkes Booth away to save him for another purpose is pretty fascinating. I'm not sure it historically makes a lot of sense, but it's interesting.

I'll be interested to see how this series continues and I'll be recommending it to readers looking for some action and adventure or mystery.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: The Kiss of Deception

The Kiss of Deception (The Remnant Chronicles, book one)
By Mary E. Pearson
Published 2014 by Henry Holt and Co.

Princess Lia does not exactly live a life of freedom - as a princess and a First Daughter, certain expectations are placed upon her. But Lia is not content to live that kind of life, so she sets out to forge her own destiny, escaping her kingdom and breaking a marriage contract. Little does she know that an assassin has been sent after her and will stop at nothing to fulfill his contract.

I was thrilled to spot this galley available for download. I'm a big fan of Pearson's Jenna Fox series, so I was excited to see a new title from her. I was also incredibly intrigued because it's a marked change of pace - from science fiction to high fantasy. How would it work out?

It's a pretty mixed bag for me. I don't necessarily have a lot of criticisms per se, but I'm also less than overwhelmingly enthusiastic about it. One of the things I enjoyed about the Jenna Fox series was how unique it was, and I think that was missing for me here. Boil this book down to its main elements and it's a basic "girl wants to live her own life" fantasy. That doesn't make it terrible - tropes are tropes for a reason - but I expected more from Pearson.

However, this book does have its unusual qualities. The worldbuilding that Pearson has done is interesting if incomplete - I want to know more about it, which is good, but that's also because not a lot of it really gets explained in this volume, which is maybe not so good. I understand what Pearson is trying to do with the quotes throughout, but so much context is lacking that they don't really make any sense right now. I feel like I'll have to go back and read them all again once the series is complete and I know the whole story of this land.

Character-wise, I liked Lia but, once again, I expected a bit more uniqueness of her. I liked that Pearson chose to use multiple narrators but I was disappointed when the assassin turned out to be exactly who I thought it was. I know she thought she was being tricky here, but it was pretty darn obvious. It was also a bit eye-rolling to pit the two main male characters so dramatically against each other - I would have liked more subtlety. The other female characters, though, were quite enjoyable.

Plot-wise, the transition from the first part of the novel to the second was not as smooth as I would have liked. Things were going so continuously in one direction that the change in action was a bit jarring for me. And honestly, a bit tedious - there was a lot of riding around in that second part of the book. But, the journey bit is important because it also leads to Lia finding out some stuff she wouldn't have otherwise. The ending is, of course, a cliffhanger. I'll be back for book two because I want to know more about this world - I need answers!

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: The Shadow Hero

The Shadow Hero
By Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Sonny Liew
Expected publication July 15, 2014 by First Second

Discover the origin story of The Green Turtle, the first Asian-American superhero!

Ugh, that's not even a summary, I know, but really, that's the basic plot of this book and you don't need anymore information to get started. I was thrilled to see a review copy available on NetGalley - I loved Yang's 2013 titles Boxers & Saints.

Unfortunately, I didn't love this one as much. I had high expectations for this one, obviously, considering how brilliant I thought Boxers was. Additionally, the call for more diverse books has been particularly strong this year, so it's great to see this title with an Asian-American protagonist (actually, almost all the characters are Asian-American). I really liked the idea behind this book - Yang discover The Green Turtle, a comic book hero from the Golden Age of comics, and decided to invent an origin story for him. I actually found the note at the end and the few pages of the original comic the most interesting. No one knows for sure if The Green Turtle was supposed to be an Asian American hero or not - his creator was Chinese, but the Turtle himself always has his face obscured in the comics. It's a fascinating story and it's easy to see why Yang was drawn to it. I like that he wanted to take it on and create an origin story for this character. I can't pinpoint exactly why I didn't love this - I think partly everything felt a bit rushed. Normally, I enjoy the quick pace of graphic novels, but in this case, I wanted more story and depth than I got. I feel like there were more questions that could have been answered, more issues to explore. Part of it is also personal preference - I generally don't go for superhero comics. So, for a different reader than myself, I can definitely see this book working much better. As it is, it's still a great read - Yang's writing is sharp and concise and Liew's illustrations perfectly echo the Golden Age comics.

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Program: A Bonanza of Recaps!

As I may have mentioned a time or twenty, I am incredibly far behind on my reviews. That includes my program write-ups. So, I'm going to try to knock out a handful of them all at once!

My Little Pony Party: holy cats my friends, was this program insanely popular! We actually had to postpone it because their was bad weather on our originally scheduled date, but that didn't stop the crowds from coming. We actually did this program as a two-pronged event: in the Children's Program Room, my boss had activities and games for younger MLP fans, while in the Upstairs Program Room, my coworker and myself had activities for older fans (up to 18). For young fans, we had Pin the Cutie Mark on Rainbow Dash, coloring sheets, color a pony mask, very simple Shrinky Dinks, and a scavenger hunt. Our activities with tweens and teens included more advanced Shrinky Dinks, creating your own pony (highly coveted - made from Dollar Store ponies we painted white ahead of time), and some very intense trivia. Leading up to the program, I took it upon myself to watch all the episodes of MLP so I could meet our patrons where they were at - it has definitely helped me, both in the program and beyond, to be versed in the pony-verse. Am I a Pegasister now?

Meet the Artist: over the past few months, this program has continued to see decent turnout with one exception. We have covered Matisse (construction paper collages), Mondrian (geometric primary color paintings), Kandinsky (drawing to music - I played four different styles of music for about 10 minutes each and encouraged them to draw how the music made them feel: classical, bluegrass, rock, and jazz), Banksy (creating our own stencils), and Picasso (Cubist faces). I am surprised and pleased that this program has continued to do well. Banksy was my one exception for attendance, but I'm going to blame it on the weather - it was the first nice day we had seen in a long time!

Chocolate Olympics: I had to take advantage of the Winter Olympics this year so I hosted this program (and another one, which I'll talk about shortly). Tweens competed in Whopper races (pushing a Whopper with their nose through a course), Oreo stacking (much harder than it sounds!), the Hershey Kiss race (unwrapping a Kiss while wearing oven mitts), M&M sorting, and Chocolate Pictionary (using a chocolate bar as our drawing tool). The Pictionary was, by far, their favorite event and I think my teen volunteers had just as much fun as the patrons!

Look for another set of program write-ups soon!