Monday, August 29, 2011

Review: The Shattering

The Shattering
By Karen Healey
Expected publication September 5th, 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Karen Healey's debut made a bit of a splash upon publication last year. I haven't had a chance to pick it up yet, but I did manage to snag an advance copy at ALA's annual conference in June. It seemed like this was one of the highly anticipated new novels around the conference and around the YA blogworld. I was pretty excited to delve into it and see what all the hype might have been about.

Since an early age, Keri has planned for all possibilities - she knows how to survive in most situations and is prepared for disasters most people don't acknowledge could happen. But after her brother's recent suicide, she doesn't feel like that person anymore. So when her old childhood friend Janna and "tourist" Sione, both of whom also had older brothers die, approach her with their suspicions that the boys were actually murdered, Keri embraces their theory. The three set out to discover the truth behind the deaths that rocked their worlds.

I really enjoyed this novel. It felt like a good old horror film. I don't want to give too much away but the way the plot unfolds is in the fashion of a certain kind of traditional horror movie - a small, idyllic town that may be a little too perfect and a dark secret that conspirators refuse to acknowledge. And, unlike a recent adult novel I read (Burnt Mountain by Anne Rivers Siddons), the direction that Healey takes with the plot seems natural and well-done, not last-minute and confusing. Healey does a really excellent job of building suspense throughout the story and maintaining a great pace that keeps readers engaged and involved. I also like that Healey writes what she knows and introduces readers to new cultures - this book is populated with a variety of characters representing the diverse ethnic groups that populate New Zealand - and Healey provides a cultural glossary at the end of the novel to help unfamiliar readers understand the language and customs they may not be familiar with. Healey's characters are all well-done - they are all unique and fully developed and interesting. Keri and Janna are both wonderfully complex female characters and Sione provides a very interesting contrast to them. I really don't have anything bad to say about this novel. I can't wait to go back and read her debut - I think she is an author to watch.

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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: 3:15

3:15, Season One: Things That Go Bump in the Night
By Patrick Carman
Expected publication September 1st, 2011 by Scholastic, Inc.

I've never read a novel by Carman (pseudonym of Paul Chandler) but it seems like his latest books have been adventures in the multimedia approaches to reading nowadays. This new series, starting with this title, seems to fully embrace the multimedia approach to a book. Each story in this collection has an audio introduction, a short story (which, according to Carman, can be finished in less than 15 minutes), and a video conclusion. The stories are all scary, reminiscent of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. However, for me, this book has too much going on. I don't have enough patience to log on to my computer, listen to an audio introduction, read a short story, and then watch in a video (which, by the way, is the only way to find out the end of the stories). My ARC had passwords so that I could access all the content on the website. However, when I tried to use them, they didn't work. Additionally, you can't skip any of the content. You have to access the audio intro before you can read the story, and you have to read the story (or at least open it) before you can watch the video conclusion. Which brings me to my final point: there is no need for the book. The short stories are all printed on the website, in between the digital content. So why is the book even being published in print? I don't really get it. I certainly think this series will find an audience, but for me, it's too all over the place.

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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: Mister Creecher

Mister Creecher
By Chris Priestley
Expected publication August 30, 2011 by Bloomsbury Publishing

The second of two Frankenstein retellings/twists that I picked up at ALA, this one takes a different path. Here we have an expanded version of Frankenstein's monster's (here called Mister Creecher) story. Creecher encounters Billy, a street urchin, in London and together they follow Frankenstein and Clerval as Creecher waits for Frankenstein to fulfill his promise - to build Creecher a mate. This book very much reminded me of Shelley's original - and that is not a good thing for me. I was so bored reading this - honestly, I'm surprised I kept reading. I think I felt obligated to do so, even though I was not enjoying it. Not enough was happening in the book to keep me interested. But the book's biggest flaw is its lack of characterization. This book is nearly 400 pages - and I don't know or care about any of its characters, including the "hero" Billy. Sure, we learn some facts about Billy's life - he's an orphan turned thief, etc. But other than that, we are left to fill in the blanks with our stereotypical idea of a turn of the century London street boy. It just doesn't work for me. Additionally, Priestley peppers the story with some secondary characters who are supposed to be sly references - why, look! There's Mary and Percy Shelley themselves, visiting London and bumping into Billy! And here we have Mr. Browning, owner of a traveling freak show which includes one Mr. Bradbury, the illustrated man. Normally, I would love this kind of thing. Here it felt hokey and ridiculous. I felt like Priestley thought he was being really clever and it bothered the crap out of me. This novel failed where Oppel's novel had succeeded.

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

Monday, August 15, 2011

Review: The Code Busters Club

The Code Busters Club: The Secret of the Skeleton Key
By Penny Warner
Expected publication August 23, 2011 by EgmontUSA

I was pretty excited to be handed a free copy of this at ALA: it sounded like a great middle grade novel, the start to a series and perfect for programming tie-ins with its focus on codes and puzzles. I have to say that, upon completion, I'm pretty disappointed. I'm firmly of the belief that you don't need to dumb things down for kids. This might be hard to believe considering my review of Wildwood just a few weeks ago. While I think that book might have been a little vocab-heavy, I think kids are fully capable of appreciating complex storylines and puzzling out things they might not fully understand (or searching to find that understanding). With this book, Warner makes everything way too simplistic - the dialogue, the characters, the plot - everything seems way too easy. For me, this really hindered my enjoyment of the book. It made me feel like Warner thinks kids are incapable of understanding complicated mysteries. The mystery here was not much of a mystery at all - that's how dumbed-down it was. The positives for this book are that it's, by default of its simplicity, a quick and easy read and the focus on codes and puzzles is something that I think will appeal to a lot of kids. Personally, though, I won't be clamoring for more in the series.

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

Friday, August 12, 2011

Review: After

By Amy Efaw, audiobook read by Rebecca Soler
Published 2009 by Penguin Group

A newborn abandoned in a trash can, a teenage girl bleeding on a could a smart and upstanding young girl like Devon do something like this?

I'm a little confused. All the other reviews I've read of this book have said that Efaw manages to create an empathetic portrait of a young girl so distraught by her situation that she convinces herself it doesn't exist. I don't get that impression at all. In fact, I found all of the characters in this book terrible. They were all obnoxious and difficult to relate to. However, this book is gripping. The opening chapter immediately sucks you in and you want to know how this story will play out. While Efaw does construct the reasons why Devon ultimately reacted the way she did, to me, it doesn't seem to be enough. There were so many opportunities for Devon to reach out to someone, and so many people whom she could have chosen that I find it hard to believe she was deep enough in denial to not realize what was happening. The book is good - compelling and well-done, especially with a sensitive topic - but the characters are a big flaw for me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: Dark Parties

Dark Parties
By Sara Grant
Published 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

This is another title I picked up at ALA that I hadn't really heard of before but snagged because, hey, it's free. I was certainly pleasantly surprised.

Neva is living inside the Protectosphere where, at 16, she is an adult, expected to never question Homeland authorities, and do the job she is assigned. But Neva is a curious girl, despite being the daughter of one of the most important men in Homeland. As she begins to question everything she knows, she aspires to be like her grandmother - one of the Missing (though according to Homeland, she never existed). Soon, Neva is at the center of a dangerous quest for truth.

I was a little bit apprehensive about this book at the start - to be honest, I was kind of sick of reading sci-fi/fantasy. And, initially, this book didn't show too much promise. However, I would say by the end of the first 50 pages, I was hooked. I needed to know what happened next; I didn't want to stop reading. This book is by no means the best written book ever - Grant relies far too much on dialogue to tell her story. But it's this dialogue that keeps up the relentless pace of the story and makes you want to know what comes next. Can Neva find out the truth about Homeland? Is there life outside the Protectosphere? What really happens to all the Missing? These questions keep the reader interested in finding out what will happen next to Neva and her friends. For me, the least successful part of this book is the attempt at romance - yes, I said attempt. The relationships depicted here are not really romantic - they are pure lust, which certainly has its place. It doesn't even bother me that these relationships are almost entirely sexual in nature. The reason why these "romances" don't work for me is because they don't add anything to the novel. The only purpose they seem to serve is to further complicate matters and add unnecessary drama to the already complex plot.

Overall, this novel's selling point will be its depiction of a unique world and a mystery that readers just need to solve. A really surprising and enjoyable read.

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

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: Wildwood

By Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis
Expected publication August 30, 2011 by Balzer & Bray

I love the Decemberists. Their songs are evocative, melodic, and wonderful stories. When I found out that their lead singer would be writing a children's book, and that it was getting fabulous praise, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. So I was incredibly excited to snag an ARC at ALA's annual conference.

Prue McKeel is enjoying a typical Oregon afternoon with her baby brother when he is suddenly abducted by a murder of crows. Determined to rescue him, Prue tracks the crows and watches in horror as they fly into the Impassable Wilderness, a dense forest that no one is ever expected to return from. But, with the help of her friend Curtis and sheer determination, Prue embarks on a quest to rescue her brother and be the first to come out of the Wilderness alive. Little does she know how complicated her journey is going to be.

My first thoughts about this book is that it will be a hell of a vocabulary lesson for any child trying to read it, especially its target audience. This is high-brow prose, with lots of fancy words, which could be great for building vocab with kids. But it could also be frustrating for children who just want to read the story and instead get tripped up by the words they don't understand. The more I read, the more this felt like a book that couldn't decide what it wanted to be. Is this really a children's book? Or is it a book about children for adults? I know they are going to be doing cross-promotion and I think it's very smart; I can definitely see this as a book enjoyed by adults. This book evokes classic fantasy - sharp heroine, extensive quest, talking animals, extremely nasty villain. It's a hefty book - over 500 pages - and I was intimidated by it initially. I didn't expect it to hold my interest the entire time, but it managed to. Prue is a wonderfully spunky heroine and it's fun to see Curtis develop. I think my favorite thing about this book is the extraordinary cast of secondary characters - the villain, the coyote soldiers, the Bandits, the Mystics, Owl Rex, the rest of the Avians - this book is alive and vibrant with wonderfully evocative characters, both human and animal alike.

This book is a very strong debut, made richer with the illustrations by Ellis. I only wish I had seen them all (the ARC had a number of places indicating "artwork to come" and no full-color illustrations). This is the first book in a projected trilogy, though the story feels complete by the end of this novel. I think this will be a big hit for young fantasy fans.

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review: Nocturne

By Christine Johnson
Expected publication August 23, 2011 by Simon Pulse

So I only read the first book in this series (yes, this is part of a series) because I got a copy of this title at ALA. That being said, I thought the first one was okay - I didn't really feel any connection to the characters but the action was decent. After reading through the second novel, I find myself agreeing with my initial evaluation of the series. If anything, Claire becomes a far more obnoxious and irritating narrator in this one and no other character is really featured to the same depth as she is, so it's hard to care about anyone in the novel. Oh, maybe I should talk about the plot before I get too far into this review...

After the bad summer, Claire just wants to find a balance between her wolf side and her human side. Unfortunately, this is starting to seem impossible. Claire will have to prove her skills as a wolf to the pack and her skills as a friend and girlfriend to Matthew and her friends.

That is a pretty terrible description, but, honestly, when I think about it, not too much happens in this book. Well, not until the last 50 pages or so and that action is so ridiculous that I don't even really want to talk about it. Like I said, Claire is much more silly and annoying in this one. She spends all her time pushing away her friends and then getting mad at them for continuing to live their lives without her. The action was the strong point in the first novel and it's definitely lacking here. Claire has to demonstrate her wolf skills and there is one she can't do. But instead of talking to her mom about it (the easy solution), she makes it complicated for herself. Then she goes to the big fall dance, but OF COURSE it's the same night as the big ceremony for the wolves. I just don't care. The main action of the novel seems to come in the last 50 pages, as I mentioned, and revolves around Claire's utter stupidity. Seriously. She thinks one of her friends has found out her secret. But she is clearly so off-base about it that it makes the entire rest of the novel absurd.

I don't really think there's much else to say about this book. It just wasn't good. I won't be reading anymore about Claire de Lune.

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Review: They Called Themselves the K.K.K.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group
By Susan Bartoletti Campbell, read by Dion Graham
Published 2010 by Brilliance Audio

I have been reading a lot more nonfiction lately as well as listening to audiobooks during my commute to work, so when I saw our library had a copy of this on audio, I checked it out and popped it into my CD player.

This book tells the story of how the Ku Klux Klan developed. It's a fascinating history and presented in an interesting way. We get to hear lots of first-person accounts, from Klan members as well as victims of the Klan's violence. It provides great depth to the story of the Klan's formation. I learned a lot of interesting facts about the Klan, including that they have the most bizarre naming system for official positions. I really enjoyed listening to Graham read the book - he has a great voice to listen to and he inserted character into all the right places. I think I might have missed something listening to the book, though - it would have been nice to attach faces to names and whatnot (at least I presume there are photographs in the print version). Still, a very informative and interesting listen.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: This Dark Endeavour

This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
By Kenneth Oppel
Expected publication August 23, 2011 by David Fickling Books

This is one of two new novels that takes the Frankenstein story and adds a layer or reinvents it, a la Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I love stories like that, so I was happy to grab a review copy of this one.

This is the story of Victor Frankenstein's teen experiences and the apprenticeship that starts him down the path to creating his monster. When his twin brother, Konrad, is struck ill by a mysterious fever that no doctor can determine the cause of or find a cure for, Victor enlists his oldest friend, Henry, and his lovely cousin, Elizabeth, on a quest for the ingredients of the Elixir of Life. It's a perilous journey, made even more complicated by a developing love triangle. Can they get the ingredients? Will the Elixir cure Konrad?

I love horror. Movies, books, TV, whatever. Anything scary is perfect for me. However, I hate Frankenstein. The book, the movie - I just find it boring. But I was willing to give this a chance because it offers a new perspective on the story. And I'm glad I did. This book was really great. It's the first time I've read Oppel, who is a well-regarded author. I can see why. His characters possess a great variety of characteristics and they are all executed equally well. I loved the direction Oppel took with the original Frankenstein story - letting us get to know Victor's family and the tragic circumstances that inform his choices later in life. I loved the presence of Konrad - an identical twin, someone for Victor to love yet also fight against. And I loved seeing Henry Clerval as a young man. His character often brings levity to the situations they find themselves in. Perhaps what I loved best about this book was simply the way it was written. It flows beautifully, keeps up a steady pace and the language is lush and evocative. This book reminded me very much of The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, one of my absolute favorite books of all time. It is dark and disturbing and yet so beautiful that you can't help but love it. The development of Frankenstein seems inevitable once you read his backstory. It's also really nice to see that the story doesn't go exactly as you would expect. About halfway through, the plot takes a twist and I wondered how the story would proceed. Thankfully, a reason is found to continue the story and I think it gets even better from that point on. I don't want to say much about what happens because I don't want to spoil it, but this is a really interesting take on the Frankenstein legend that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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