Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: The Future of Us

The Future of Us
By Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
Expected publication November 21, 2011 by Razorbill

One of the fall's most anticipated teen novels, this is a collaboration between Jay Asher (whose debut 13 Reasons Why took YA by storm) and Carolyn Mackler (who has written a number of well-loved YA novels) that tells the story of best friends Emma and Josh. It's 1996 and Emma has just gotten her first computer. When Josh brings over a free AOL CD-ROM, Emma fires it up and finds...Facebook? OMG, she's looking at herself 15 years in the future...and she doesn't really like what she sees.

This was one of the most sought-after ARCs at ALA and I happily snagged a copy. Let me start with the good about this book: super-compelling. I literally did not want to put it down. I couldn't wait to find out how the present might affect what Facebook said the next time Emma and Josh logged on. Additionally, because this book takes place in 1996 and their Facebook profiles talk about things that don't exist yet, there are a few knowing laugh out loud moments. Sometimes, it makes you a bit nostalgic for the way things were (although this aspect might be lost on teens who were mere babies in 1996). But for me, there is one big part of this book that doesn't work: Emma. To me, she is one of the least sympathetic characters I've encountered in a while. And because of this, it causes a lot of the other aspects of the novel to not work for me. I find Emma to be whiny and ridiculous and because of this, I was actively rooting against her friendship with Josh. Because I thought Josh was a decent enough character and couldn't imagine why he was friends with Emma. Maybe it's just me and other readers won't have this problem. But this made the novel a bit of a miss for me.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales
By Chris Van Allsburg
Published 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

I was introduced to this book by a professor in library school. Originally published by Van Allsburg in 1984, the first version of this book contained only the haunting illustrations and one to two lines of text. The book's existence was explained by way of an interesting introduction. Now, 14 authors have collected here to tell us the stories behind these unusual illustrations.

I find the introduction by Lemony Snicket in this edition to be entirely unnecessary. It doesn't really add much information to anyone who is familiar with the original. Snicket simply uses this space to posit the notion that these are the actual stories, written by Harris Burdick and entrusted to these 14 authors for care. What a magical thought, but is it true? Likely not. I would actually have liked to learn the process that was used for stories and authors - were authors selected and then they chose which stories they wanted to tell? Or were authors selected to tell certain stories, decided by Van Allsburg (or his publisher)? It's interesting to think about how the illustrations and authors were matched. For me, some of the combinations worked out much better than others. Some of the combinations I found quite bizarre. But overall, this was an interesting new take on this infamous work by Van Allsburg. My favorite new tales included Jon Scieszka's "Under the Rug" (which grew from "Two weeks passed and it happened again."), Sherman Alexie's "A Strange Day in July" ("He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back."), Jules Feiffer's "Uninvited Guests" ("His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn."), Linda Sue Park's "The Harp" ("So it's true he thought, it's really true."), "Mr. Linden's Library" by Walter Dean Myers ("He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late."), Lois Lowry's "The Seven Chairs" ("The fifth one ended up in France.")...actually, the only ones I didn't really enjoy were Tabitha King's, Gregory Maguire's, and Cory Doctorow's. All in all, this is a stellar collection of short stories by a great variety of authors.

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review: Brian Selznick's early works

Boy of a Thousand Faces
By Brian Selznick
Published 2000 by HarperCollins Children's Books

The Houdini Box
By Brian Selznick
Published 2001 by Aladdin

I fell in love with Selznick's Caldecott-winning work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I had no idea that he had published anything else. I knew he had done illustrations for other authors but thought that was his first solo work. Turns out I was wrong. Recently, I picked up two of his earlier titles and read them. They are both short - about the length of a typical picture book - and both hint at Selznick's genius. He seamlessly blends his narration with his illustrations to tell a complete story.  Both of these stories appealed especially to me because they are about subjects I really like. Boy of a Thousand Faces tells the story of a young boy who loves horror movies. He likes to create his own faces, like the host of a horror show whom he idolizes. The story unfolds over Halloween and it's a very sweet story. The illustrations are great, perfectly evoking the golden age of horror films. The Houdini Box tells of a young boy who wants to be a famous escape artist like Houdini but can't quite get it right. One day, he meets Houdini himself, who gives him a locked box by way of explaining his tricks. This is another sweet story about a young boy and the power of imagination and belief. I think Houdini is a fascinating subject for kids. Selznick's early works show his ability to balance the written and illustrated. I really enjoyed both of these short titles and recommend them for all.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: Gothic!

Gothic!: Ten Original Dark Tales
Edited by Deborah Noyes
Published 2004 by Candlewick Press

Ten young adult authors offer their takes on the gothic short story. I read this one in preparation for Halloween - during the month of October I like to read and watch mostly horror-focused media (because it's my favorite anyway so why not take the whole month?). So I grabbed a few short story collections to read at the same time as my many ARCs. I figured I could take time to read one short story a day - and I certainly do. This was the first collection I dived into and I have to say, it was a pretty good one. Like I've mentioned recently, all anthologies/collections have their ups and downs. For me, this one was split down the middle - five stories I really enjoyed and five I didn't like as much. My favorites were Vivian Vande Velde's tale of a haunted hayride that may actually be haunted, M.T. Anderson's version of an ancient horror story, Caitlin R. Kiernan's take on supernatural rites of passage, Janni Lee Simner's eerie tale of fatherly protection gone too far, and Celia Rees' spooky ghost story. All were spooky and interesting and quick reads. I was most surprised to see which stories I didn't enjoy as much - the venerable Joan Aiken, one of my personal favorites Neil Gaiman, the fantastic Garth Nix, and the author of one of my favorite books ever Gregory Maguire. I was really surprised that I didn't enjoy these contributions more, but I guess it all depends on what they're writing. Other people may certainly enjoy these tales more than my favorites - and that's part of the beauty of the story collection. There's almost always something for everyone. A delightful spooky read.

Review: The Watch That Ends the Night

The Watch That Ends the Night
By Allan Wolf
Expected publication October 11, 2011 by Candlewick Press

Sunday, April 14, 1912: The RMS Titanic collides with an iceberg and sinks, with two thousand people aboard. These are their voices.

I have kind of an obsession with novels in verse - I will read about pretty much anything if it's written in verse. And I really enjoy historical fiction. So this was a great combination for me. Wolf chooses about 24 different voices to represent the two thousand people aboard the Titanic. I think he selects a great cross-section of individuals: a young refugee girl, a man with his children on the run from his ex-wife, the millionaire John Jacob Astor, the "unsinkable" Molly Brown (who, surprising to learn, was never called Molly in her life), a young dragon-hunter, a large cross-section of employees - the captain, the builder, one of the businessmen, a baker, a mailman, a telegraph operator, the lookout, a violinist - the iceberg itself, and the undertaker who assisted with the recovery of bodies after the tragedy. Wolf has chosen some of the most interesting voices to guide his narrative (can you believe I never even knew Astor was on the ship?)  and it flows easily and interestingly. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing this story from such a great variety of perspectives and, even though we all know how this story ends, the personal perspectives allow us to see the story in a new light. Now, we want to know which of these people survive the tragedy and which go down with the ship (with the exception of Margaret Brown, whose fate I think is universally known). Wolf also provides biographical details at the end of the book, to help readers separate fact from creative license. I think Wolf has done a tremendous job of making an old subject fresh again. I thoroughly enjoyed this read.

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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Tuesdays at the Castle

Tuesdays at the Castle
By Jessica Day George
Expected publication October 11, 2011 by Bloomsbury Children's Books

The Kingdom of Glower doesn't follow the traditional rules of succession. That's because the Kingdom of Glower contains Castle Glower, a castle that grows rooms, halls and even whole wings nearly every Tuesday and isn't afraid to let its inhabitants know how it feels about them. Princess Celie is clearly the castle's favorite and she is making an atlas of the castle's rooms in an attempt to better understand it. The rest of her family is also loved by the castle, but when the King and Queen are attacked and their fate remains a mystery, it's up to Celie (with the help of her sister Lilah and their brother, heir to the throne and chosen by the castle himself, Rolf) to protect her beloved castle from those who would threaten her family's reign.

What a delight this book was! I love fairy tales and this reads just like one! It's full of magic and joy and intrigue and wonderful characters. Celie is a wonderful heroine - she is strong-willed and independent, she thinks for herself and she loves the castle. Castle Glower is a delightful character as well - I feel like a member of the royal family and my concern for the castle felt real. Lilah and Rolf and the rest of the secondary characters were well-developed and interesting as well. This book actually reminded me a lot of E.D. Baker's The Frog Princess series - and that is a wonderful thing! I just felt happy to be reading this book. Though some bad things happen, the overall mood of this book is one of fun and amusement. I loved every second I spent reading this book and am so happy to know that this is the first in a series. I will have to read more of George's book - this is a highly recommended read!

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

Review: Steampunk!

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories
Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant
Expected publication October 11, 2011 by Candlewick Press

Unless you live under a rock, you know that steampunk is huge right now. This is a new YA anthology to introduce readers to the subtleties and varieties that encompass steampunk, with stories from a selection of YA authors. As with any anthology, this had its highlights and not-so-much for me. It was really interesting to see how each author interpreted "steampunk", especially since it can be hard to define that term in the first place. The editors provide a nice introduction, which includes their attempt to define steampunk and a brief discussion of how varied steampunk stories can be. To the stories themselves: my favorites were Libba Bray, Ysabeau S. Wilce, Kelly Link, Garth Nix, Christopher Rowe, Dylan Horrocks, and Holly Black. I really enjoyed Libba Bray's tale of a girl gang - I've read most of her books and really enjoyed them and am continually impressed by all the different directions she chooses to go in with her writing - and how successful she always seems to be. I was surprisingly engaged with Ysabeau S. Wilce's police procedural story - I had read Flora Segunda a while back and thoroughly did not enjoy it so it was pleasant to discover that I really liked the story she included here. Kelly Link's tale of summer people was slightly creepy and magical; I'm looking forward to reading more by her. Garth Nix's tale of the former Grand Technomancer presented a future not that hard to imagine. The future in Christopher Rowe's story where personal cars are frowned upon (to say the least) is also not so hard to picture. Dylan Horrocks crafted a beautiful and sad story of Steam Girl, while Holly Black's story of love among the automatons was sad in another way. The stories I didn't love (Cassandra Clare, Cory Doctorow, Delia Sherman, Shawn Cheng, Elizabeth Knox, Kathleen Jennings, and M.T. Anderson) were actually still stories that I liked - I can still remember what all of these stories were about (which, considering my memory and how much I read, is pretty impressive). The more I think about it, the more I realize that I enjoyed something in every story presented here, though I definitely had some favorites. This is a great collection that I think will easily find a big audience. I'm happy to see steampunk take off and hope some of the authors featured here will continue writing steampunk adventures.

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

Monday, October 3, 2011

Review: Sweet Venom

Sweet Venom
By Tera Lynn Childs
Expected publication October 4, 2011 by Katherine Tegen Books

Grace, Gretchen and Greer are three girls living totally separate lives. Grace's family has just moved to San Francisco and she's excited to get a new start and maybe invent a new her. Greer lives a life of privilege and doesn't have time for anything unusual to enter into her life. And Gretchen...well, Gretchen has been fighting monsters for the last four years as a descendant of Medusa. Now, all three of their lives are about to crash together in ways these girls never expected.

Childs wrote a couple of books that are basically modern mermaid romances. I'm not really on the whole mermaid bandwagon, so I haven't read them but I've heard good things about them (one of them is actually a Lone Star title this year). But this, her newest book definitely caught my eye. The story of three girls who are descendants of Medusa - who we all know is evil (right? RIGHT?) - who are just discovering their identities and fighting monsters in the meantime - I mean, it sounds awesome. I'm happy to report that this book stands up to my expectations - it's fun and interesting and builds a great mythology. Childs takes what we think we know about Medusa and turns it all around - and it totally works. The three girls are different enough that they provide a good contrast to each other but not so different that you couldn't believe they all come from the same family (they pretty much all possess the same characteristics, just expressed differently). The process they are going through (of discovery, I mean) is compelling - I want to know what it all means. And that, I think, is the greatest strength of this novel - Childs has created a new mythology that is really interesting. I can't figure it all out on my own and she lets pieces slip only sporadically so the reader stays engaged throughout the novel - and I think that's pretty big when the third main character isn't introduced until 200 pages into the book. I didn't realize this was the first in a series (it better be!) so I was surprised and sad at the cliffhanger end. I can't wait for the next one! A fun and compelling read.

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

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: Liesl & Po

Liesl & Po
By Lauren Oliver
Expected publication October 4, 2011 by Harper

Liesl lives in her attic -  well, actually, her stepmother has locked her in the attic ever since Liesl's father got sick. And now he's gone and Liesl never got to say goodbye. But on the third night after his death, Po appears in Liesl's room. Po is a ghost. Together, along with a distraught former alchemist's apprentice and maybe (just maybe) a little help from the greatest magic in the world, Liesl and Po will undergo a journey that will change them both.

This is Oliver's first book for middle-grade readers and, in an introductory note in my ARC, her most personal book yet. This book is beautiful. Oliver tells the story simply but engagingly. She doesn't really do anything fancy with the writing and it suits this story just fine. Because the story Oliver has crafted is powerful and moving and lovely. This is really a story for all ages - after all, who doesn't want to find out what the greatest magic in the world is? Liesl is a character that will break your heart and life your spirits - she is a sad girl, but not so sad that she has become damaged. This book is full of lovely metaphor and layers, but nothing that overwhelms the essence of the story. The supporting characters here are all executed flawlessly as well - though Oliver may utilize the "evil stepmother" trope, it serves its purpose and is told so beautifully that it doesn't feel tired. I loved getting Po's perspective as well - it filled the story out. I liked how Liesl and Will intersect and become important to each other. This book was just such a delight - I couldn't put it down. My one complaint: the ARC is lacking the illustrations that will appear in the finished addition. I would have loved to see the art that will accompany the story; I think it will add another beautiful layer to the story.

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