Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
By Jesse Andrews
Expected publication March 1, 2012 by Amulet Books

If you're expecting this to be some touching, weepy, meaningful book about how Greg's friendship with Rachel, the girl dying of leukemia, changed his life, you're reading the wrong book. This is more the story of how Greg's mom made him be friends with the dying girl, Greg and his friend Earl made some bad films, and nothing in Greg's life really changed all that much.

Another blogger put it well when they said "I'd hate to be a guy writing a book in 2012 about a girl with cancer if my name wasn't John Green." And that's kinda how I feel about it, too. There are quite a few similarities between Green's latest bestseller and Andrews' debut novel. Both feature girls dying of cancer, both feature sharp dialogue and snarky teenage characters and both are far outside the realm of typical "cancer novels." But there are differences as well. Green's narrator is the girl with cancer herself; Andrews chooses to tell the story from an outside perspective. At its heart, Green's novel is romantic; Andrews' is more about growing up and learning about yourself. Ultimately, it's unfair to try to compare the two - Green has a number of books under his belt already and a built-in audience, as well as a huge multimedia presence, while Andrews is brand-new to the young adult world. To judge it by itself, this book is a really great read. This was a book that made my coworkers ask, "what are you reading?!" as I laughed out loud at my desk during lunch breaks. And I'm not just saying that - this book is really funny. Greg, our narrator, is incredibly self-deprecating and, while this started to wear on my nerves after awhile, I'm glad this was consistent through the end of the novel. Often, an author will start out with something like this (where the narrator is constantly mocking his own narration) and then drop it later in the book. I'm happy that Andrews kept this up to the end. The chapters are short and interesting, so the novel moves at a nice pace. Overall, I really like the style of this book - it's an interesting story told in an interesting way. I'll be looking forward to what else Andrews writes in the future. As a side note, I absolutely love the cover!

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: Partials

Partials (Partials, book 1)
By Dan Wells
Expected publication February 28, 2012 by Balzer + Bray

After the Isolation War came the Partials War and now humanity as we know it is nearly non-existent. The survivors, numbering only perhaps in the tens of thousands, live on Long Island, constantly in fear of dying out completely. No baby in a decade has been born immune to the virus that killed off most of the population. When Kira Walker discovers her best friend is pregnant, she knows she will do anything to make sure that baby lives.

This is a book that I heard about from one of my favorite book blogs (Books Smugglers, if you don't read this already, what are you waiting for??). Dan Wells' earlier novels had also made my radar, so when I saw an ARC of this one at Midwinter, I happily snatched it up.

If you read my earlier review of BZRK, this book is the one that I was way more into than Grant's book. Right from the opening chapter, Wells had my attention. Kira is, admittedly, not a perfect heroine. But there is something about her that is compelling and interesting and makes you really hope that all her hare-brained schemes might actually work. Wells has pacing down to an art form. This book is pretty relentless - you feel the constant push to keep reading, just one more chapter, I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. There are a number of cliff-hangers throughout the novel that really make you wish you didn't have to go to work, or the gym, or sleep (WHY CAN'T I READ IN MY SLEEP? This is perhaps my greatest lamentation). Though a good percentage of the book is action action action, there are some quieter moments mixed in. Kira's struggle with how to live in this world and the balance between what feels right for her and what will make the most people happy is something that I think a lot of teens will be able to relate to. As I said, she's not perfect - some of the things she does had me yelling at the book in frustration. But, for me, she's a better heroine than Katniss Everdeen because she makes the difficult choices. In my opinion, Katniss was not a born hero; she became one due to circumstances forced upon her. Kira, on the other hand, appears to have always had the instinct for heroics. I know in that plot description it says that her best friend's pregnancy encourages her heroic behavior, but she was actually on the path before she found out about the impending baby. This book is exciting and I'm really intrigued by the world that Wells has created. To me, it's believable and horrific. This is a book that could foster some excellent discussion among teens. I desperately want the next book NOW. This is highly recommended for fans of sci-fi, especially dystopian, post-apocalyptic worlds. I highly recommend this for girls, as well, because I think Kira is a great character.

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

Review: BZRK

BZRK (BZRK, book 1)
By Michael Grant
Expected publication February 28, 2012 by EgmontUSA

This is a war between two factions: the Armstrong Fancy Gift Corporation and BZRK. This is the story of Noah, who visits his fearless older brother in the mental hospital, and Sadie, who soon will be the only member of her family left alive. This is a book in which there are only two outcomes: victory or madness.

Okay, much like with the Hunger Games, I’m one of the only people who hasn’t read Michael Grant’s Gone series. I spotted this one at ALA Midwinter, the first book in a new series. But I’ll admit: I wasn’t immediately sold on it. I’ve never read him before and the blurb on the back of my ARC didn’t really convince me. However, I went to Egmont’s session about upcoming titles and became infinitely more intrigued by the book when I heard the phrase “evil genius conjoined twins who want to create Utopia.” (It may not have been that exact phrase, but you know what I’m saying.) When I made my way back to their booth, I picked up a copy of the ARC. I’m almost thinking I should have trusted my first instincts on this one.

This is my first exposure to Michael Grant, and, if all the hype can be believed, I wish it wasn’t. I wish I had started with his Gone series, or even the Magnificent Twelve series (which I stumbled on among the “new” books a few months back). Both of these series appealed to me, but, of course, finding the time to delve into a new series is basically impossible in my life. But, you may have figured this out (or not), I can’t resist the appeal of reading an ARC before the book is officially published. So, this series, instead of the other two, is my introduction to Mr. Grant. I won’t say that I hated this book. Parts of the story really grabbed me and some sections flew by. But I also didn’t overwhelmingly enjoy this book – it was incredibly difficult for me to get into this book and it didn’t hold my attention as much as the other book I started reading around the same time. The blurb on the ARC doesn’t really provide a lot of background information (perhaps this will be different for the published version, but I kinda doubt it), and neither do the first 100 pages or so. This is an example of a book that throws you right into the story with no explanation and, in this case, this totally did not work for me. I felt confused and frustrated throughout the first part of this book and this is actually one of the few times where I considered voluntarily putting the book down and walking away from it. I’m OCD about books; if I start one, I pretty much have to finish it. And if I start a series, chances are I’m going to read the whole thing, even if it starts getting old after a while (case in point: The Chronicles of Vlad Tod). But this book was so not reaching me for the first part of it that I seriously thought about giving up on it. However, because of the aforementioned book OCD, I stuck with it. I’m not entirely won over, but I do think there were enjoyable bits that I would have missed. This book is too uneven for me – in terms of pretty much everything: plot, pacing, characters. The publisher buzz that sucked me in – evil conjoined twins who believe they are working toward a better society – was not as developed as I hoped it would be. I think there are some interesting aspects of this novel – both sides believe they are doing the “right” and “good” work – but these are interesting things that could be found in novels that worked better for me. Ultimately, this book was a disappointment for me. However, I imagine that it will still hold great appeal for Grant’s legions of fans and perhaps the faults I found with the novel won’t exist for other readers.

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

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: The Legend of Diamond Lil

The Legend of Diamond Lil (J.J. Tully Mystery, book 2)
By Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Expected publication February 28, 2012 by Balzer + Bray

I snagged an ARC of this at Midwinter this January and after quickly devouring the first book, I made lightning fast work of this title as well.

J.J. Tully is back with a new mystery. There's a new dog next door and he needs to find out her story. And, is it possible that the chickens are in danger again?? While this is the second J.J. Tully Mystery, I think it stands alone well as a fun, funny, fast-paced, quick read for beginning readers. This book is just as much fun as the first, while developing a slightly more complex plot. I think the characters Cronin has created are great and will really appeal to children. J.J. is a nice hero and Vince the Funnel provides an excellent foil for him. There are some interesting language choices throughout this book (and the first as well), and I actually think these books would be great for lessons on parody, humor, sarcasm, and the parts of a book. They are enjoyable and I think will appeal to a wide variety of kids. I didn't find the mystery as interesting this time around, but it was a little more involved, which I think is a good development for the series. I'll be interested to see where this goes.

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

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (6)

By Patrick McDonnell
Published 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
I had seen this book quite some time ago and, though it seems a bit silly to say, I didn't have a moment to pick it up until recently. Which turned out to be a big shame. This book is beautiful in pretty much every way. The story is simple - a very nice telling of Jane Goodall's life. It's a shame to me that people like Jane live largely out of the spotlight nowadays because she is really the kind of person that children should be looking up to. McDonnell perfectly captures her spirit in this book and the illustrations are lovely. The book is laid out in two-page spreads: the words are on the left page and the accompanying illustrations on the right. This gives the reader more opportunity to linger over each spread. But the pages with the text also feature vintage stamp-like illustrations in the background. The way this book is designed is just beautiful. One of my recent favorites and a 2012 Caldecott Medal Honor book.

By Patricia Intriago
Published 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
This is a very simple concept book essentially teaching children opposites. Intriago uses some common sets of opposites but also includes a few unique pairs. Though this is really quite a simple book, it is visually impressive. This book would be excellent for spatial and print awareness. I don't have much else to say about it but I think it's wonderful in its simplicity.

Big Hugs, Little Hugs
By Felicia Bond
Published 2012 by Penguin Group, Inc.
This is a new book from the illustrator of Laura Numeroff's If You Give... series. I really like her illustration style. The animals she draws are the right amount of anthropomorphous and adorable. This is another simple concept book illustrating the vast variety of hugs. Obviously, this book is just in time for Valentine's Day and books of this ilk are pretty much guaranteed to be charming and cute. Regarding the illustrations again, Bond choose a nice variety of fabrics/materials/patterns as well as making some interesting choices of the animals she represented.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: The Everafter

The Everafter
By Amy Huntley, read by Tavia Gilbert
Published 2009 by Brilliance Audio

Madison is dead. She doesn't know how or why or where she is but she knows that she's dead. She also knows that she's surrounded by glowing objects from her life - the things she lost. And she finds that she can use these objects to travel back to the moments in which she lost them. Can she use one of these objects to figure out how she died?

Okay, this is going to be a really rare review from me. Because I really didn't like this book, but I have nothing to say about it. Normally, my reviews are longer when I dislike a book, but not this time. I have to start by saying: what the h is this book? Like seriously. This book makes pretty much no sense while at the same time attempting to be incredibly philosophical. There is nothing about this book that works for me. The characters are all underdeveloped, including Madison. I suppose this may be because we are only getting snapshots of her life. But what it ultimately means is that I just didn't care about her. I wanted to find out how she died because it would mean the book was over. But, it's not terribly hard to figure out, either. I'm quite surprised that this book had such good reviews on Goodreads. I get that the author was trying to explore the question of life after death; for me, she just didn't do so satisfactorily. Apparently, this is supposed to be the first book in a series, but I don't think I'll be reading anymore. This just did not work for me.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: The Trouble With Chickens

The Trouble with Chickens (J.J. Tully Mystery, book 1)
By Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Published 2011 by HarperCollins

I'm a big fan of Cronin's picture books and was excited to hear about her foray into chapter books. Plus, the idea for this one just sounded adorable. I picked it up recently because I got an ARC of the second title.

J.J. Tully is a retired search-and-rescue dog, living the good life in suburbia now. But his peace and quiet is interrupted when it becomes evident that his chickens are in danger. Yes, his chickens. I really, really enjoyed this book. It's a very quick read with short, interesting chapters, which I think is perfect for those just beginning to delve into chapter books. Additionally, I think this book has a great tone - it's very funny and I think it's humorous on multiple levels. First, and what will appeal to kids, is that it's just a silly book. A dog is going to rescue some crazy chickens from an evil dog who wears a cone around his head? Absurd humor. But, for an older audience who might pick this up, J.J. has a sarcastic sense of humor that would really appeal to a more advanced reader (once they discover sarcasm, kids never give up on it). Admittedly, some of the things will go over the intended audience's head, as this book also contains a lot of parody to classic noir/crime stories. But I think the story is enjoyable enough on its other levels to still make this an excellent choice. Plus, mysteries are hugely popular with kids, as well as talking animals - best of both worlds!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: Divergent

Divergent (Divergent, book 1)
By Veronica Roth
Published 2011 by Katherine Tegen Books

In Beatrice's world, society has split into five factions: Candor, Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, and Amity. Beatrice was raised in Abnegation; soon, she will be forced to choose to which faction she will devote the rest of her life. But, all is not as it seems, even after Beatrice makes her choice.

This book has been everywhere for the last few months. All the staff at one of my libraries had been reading it recently. Plus, it's one of the Lone Star books this year and I'd like to try to read them all. The few of my Goodreads friends who have read it have had sort of mild reactions to it. I myself am not entirely sure how I feel about it. A lot of it is pretty ridiculous - like the world Tris lives in doesn't even remotely make sense - but I found myself willing to play along because it was kind of a ridiculously awesome idea. Tris is an obnoxious character - I don't want to give any spoilers away but she spends A LOT of her time being woefully ignorant to a variety of painfully obvious things. The writing is nothing special and some of the plot relies on old tropes done in a slightly different way. But Roth has me intrigued. Even though Beatrice/Tris was all too often a frustrating character, I found myself rooting for her. I want to know more about the ridiculous world that Roth has created. I want to find out what happens next. So, I'll be back for book two - let's hope it gets a little better.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Frindle

By Andrew Clements, illustrated by Brian Selznick
Published 1998 by Aladdin

Who decides what we should call an object? Like, who decided we were going to call a pen "pen"? This is the lesson that young Nick challenges and, soon, it spins out of control.

As part of my new job (well, actually, it will be my old job since I just got hired for another new job), I wanted to start a book club for tweens. It's been awhile since our library has run one and I love book clubs, so I thought it couldn't hurt to try. The first meeting won't be until March, but this is the book I chose for our first discussion. Surprisingly, I had never read this book before, even though it's been showered with awards and is hugely popular. As a matter of fact, I don't think I'd read anything by Clements before. After finishing this book, I can say that this is pretty much an unforgivable shame. Frindle is an absolutely wonderful book. I was totally hooked and sucked in and devoured it pretty much as fast as I could. Clements is fantastic at creating believable and interesting characters. Additionally, what makes this book supremely awesome is that it packs a lot of punch in a small amount of pages. This book can really lead to some deep questions - and yet, it's just barely 100 pages long. Also, the deep questions are subtle - it never feels like we are being hit over the head with some lesson while reading. The text is accompanied by Selznick's ever-gorgeous illustrations. I think the duo of Clements and Selznick has done a perfect job capturing the elementary school environment in both words and pictures. I really, really hope that I have some kids show up to my book club because I think they'd provide a fascinating discussion. And I absolutely can't wait to read more by Clements in the future. This book proves that I need to read more backlist!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (5)

By Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Published 1999 by Candlewick Press
I picked this one up because it was on a list of good read-alouds for elementary age children, the age I'll be focusing on at my new job. I read this story two ways which makes me wonder what the point of it is. Is it better to break completely with society when you feel misunderstood? Or should you try to fit in using what talents you have and teaching them to others? It makes me wonder how kids would see it. It does strike me as an excellent book to introduce a gardening program.

Lady Liberty: A Biography
By Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares
Published 2008 by Candlewick Press
Another one that was on a list of good read-alouds for elementary kids, this is the biography of the Statue of Liberty. It's told through poems by various people involved in her creation, which is a wonderful way to tell the story. This book taught me tons of things I didn't know - the statue was built by multiplying models over and over again until they were the desired size. It was the idea of a French law professor to build this statue for America and was funded partially by French citizens (and American citizens as well, when the government refused to pay for it). The book shows again that it's often the people who have the least to give that give the most. They even named a piece of the statue after Pulitzer because of his fundraising campaign. The illustrations in this are great - it was totally new to me seeing the statue in its original copper color and I think that would be true for most kids as well. A wonderful book.

The Worst of Friends
By Suzanne Tripp Jurmain, illustrated by Larry Day
Published 2011 by Penguin Group, Inc.
Did you know Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were frenemies? They were best friends who eventually became political enemies and, spoiler alert, they mended their bridges later in life. This book actually made me appreciate history more, which is awesome. Jefferson and Adams ended up dying on the exact same day, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence - fascinating! The illustrations add humor to the story, such as when they show stick figure posters that the two men might have drawn of each other when they were feuding. A great non-fiction picture book.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: Bright Young Things

Bright Young Things (Bright Young Things, book 1)
By Anna Godbersen, read by Emily Bauer
Published 2010 by HarperChildren's Audio

It's 1929 and New York City is flush with Bright Young Things: flappers hoping to be famous, up-and-coming young gangsters, and socialites seeking wrong-side-of-the-track thrills. Enter Letty and Cordelia into this scenery: small-town Midwestern girls, each with her own big city mission. Throw in socialite Astrid and soon you have a recipe for intrigue, scandal and murder.

I'm a big fan of historical fiction and something about this era is endlessly appealing (and not just to me, I'm sure). Additionally, Godbersen's other series (The Luxe) was popular and seemed to be well-received, so I thought I'd give this one a shot. This book was sort of a mixed bag for me. There were times when I was listening that I totally zoned out and didn't really absorb what was happening. But, after finishing it, I definitely want to read the next one to find out what happens. I spent the majority of the time I listened trying to guess which girl was going to end up being murdered - and it was actually quite the guessing game. I think Godbersen does a wonderful job creating her atmosphere - the descriptions are lush and evocative without being overwhelming or purple-y. There were times while reading that I wanted to bash the girls over the head for being so naive but then I realized that that's how it was for a lot of young girls trying to make it big in those days. Like I said, I find myself compelled to read the next book and find out what fate awaits these young women, but it's definitely not the best book I've read this year.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: The Disenchantments

The Disenchantments
By Nina LaCour
Published February 16, 2012 by Dutton Children's Books

Colby is about to embark on the adventure of his lifetime: first, a tour with The Disenchantments, his best friends (an all-girl band); next, a year across Europe with Bev (lead singer of the band and total love of his life). But almost as soon as the tour starts, Bev announces that she's going to college instead of Europe and everything threatens to go horribly wrong.

This was another one that was practically shoved at me at Midwinter. It sounded like it could be good. And a part of me enjoyed it. But another part of this book just didn't really work for me. First, this is mostly a trivial thing, but I hate this cover. This book is narrated by Colby, a male - the cover in no way gives this impression. Additionally, there is no way this cover is going to appeal to boys (even though I think it's a story they could enjoy). Next, this book is not any longer than your average YA novel but it moves very slowly. At first, I was enjoying this slower pace, because this is actually a well-written novel that calls up a lot of interesting questions. But after the first 100 pages, I wanted it to pick up speed a little more. Unfortunately, this just didn't happen. It's sort of a weird thing for me because, like I said, this is a well-written book and I was right there with the characters, interested in what was happening. But it was all just moving too slow for me. Additionally, I sometimes found the characters a bit grating and unrealistic. Overall, I thought this was a decent read, just wasn't quite all that I hoped for.

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: The Exquisite Corpse Adventure

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
By National Children's Book & Literacy Alliance
Published 2011 by Candlewick

I spotted this book on the new display and, come on - I could not resist a children's book with the words "exquisite corpse" in the title.

Our story begins with a train speeding through the night and brother and sister twins with a mystery on their hands. Well, that's how Jon Scieszka starts the story. What happens from then on will be up to Shannon Hale, Katherine Paterson, Gregory Maguire, and many other well-known children's book authors as they each take a turn writing a chapter in the Exquisite Corpse Adventure.

While this premise is really cool (I'm always interested in collaborative creative efforts) and I can see this being a wonderful jumping off point for some programming, this story didn't really work for me. I can definitely see it appealing to a certain audience of children but I am not a part of that audience (and I don't think I would have been as a child either). Some really weird and crazy plot twists happen throughout the story and I just wasn't all that interested in them. Often, they seemed a bit too much for me. Plus, I didn't find the main characters all that appealing - and part of that was due to lack of characterization. Perhaps with a book like this you have to make it more action-driven. But I found it difficult to care about whether or not the twins solved the mystery and saved the day. Additionally, I found the illustrations almost entirely irrelevant - they are only included at the beginning of each chapter and they didn't add anything to the story for me. The highlights of my reading of this novel were the chapters by Lemony Snicket (who I now desperately wish would write some new books as Mr. Snicket). Overall, this was a disappointment for me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Wonder

By R.J. Palacio
Expected publication February 14, 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

August has been homeschooled his whole life. Now, as he's about to enter fifth-grade, his parents think he should try going to a regular school. This would be bad enough if Auggie were a normal kid - but he's not. Auggie was born with a severe facial deformity (to paraphrase his words, "whatever you're thinking, it's worse"). Can Auggie survive his first year at a real school?

This book was practically shoved into my hands at Midwinter - everyone working the booth was raving about it and recommending it to every librarian within earshot. Of course, I happily obliged them. I can't pinpoint what exactly it is about this book but I really, really enjoyed it. I didn't want to stop reading. This is a simple yet compelling and complex story about Auggie, his family, and his attempt to assimilate in the world of middle school (which was a little weird for me because our middle school only housed 7th and 8th grade, but this one starts at 5th). Auggie is a well-defined character with an interesting voice. He provides an unique, but, I think, accurate perspective of a child with a visible physical deformity. His story is believable and heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. Palacio also chooses to provide multiple perspectives throughout the book (there are eight sections, three narrated by Auggie and five by various other characters). Though it felt a bit strange at first (because the narrative break doesn't come for a while), ultimately I think this really worked. It allows the reader to step out from Auggie's perspective, which is admittedly a tough one to be in. The other narrators are a mix of obvious choices (Auggie's older sister Via, the boy who befriends Auggie at school) and more subtle (Via's new boyfriend, Via's former best friend, the girl who sits with Auggie at lunch). I thought this mix worked really well for the story. It goes without saying that this book made me cry, but in a way that surprised me. This is an emotional book and a great book about fitting in, bullying, growing up, and choosing kindness over popularity. I think this book will have a lot of fans. I certainly enjoyed it.

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

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars
By John Green
Published 2012 by Dutton Juvenile

Like most people, I didn't really need any convincing to read this book. John Green is one of my favorite contemporary YA authors. I saw him speak at ALA Midwinter in January and just couldn't resist buying his latest (and getting it signed!). I started reading it pretty much immediately and finished it the next day.

Hazel was diagnosed with stage IV thyroid cancer when she was 12. A medical miracle at 14 kept her alive. Now, she's 16 and still trying to adjust to what her life means now. Then she meets Augustus Waters at a cancer support group and pretty much whatever plan she'd had for her life before is turned upside down.

Oh. What can I say? I find it so impossibly difficult to write about books that I love. It is much easier for me to focus on all the things that didn't work in a book. So this is going to be a very trying review to write. Because this book is absolute brilliance. So much of its brilliance ties into what I love about John Green in the first place - he is a phenomenal writer. I think he is equally excellent at every aspect of writing a novel - characters, dialogue, pacing, plot - everything is so beautifully constructed that his books just fill me with joy. Perhaps what I love most about Green is how smart his books are - there's really no other way to put it. Even though he writes for a teen audience, he never writes down to them. To me, Green's writing demonstrates his belief that teens are smart and can handle reading about complicated situations and emotions. The success of his books proves that teens don't need to be pandered to with emotionally abusive vampires or sexy werewolves or whatever the latest thing is. Teens will still enjoy a well-written, complex, and emotionally engaging realistic story. I don't think it would be wrong to say that I believe this book is his best so far.

Every page of this novel absolutely sparkles with wit and emotion and complexity and every other thing that you long for in a good book. I will try to say a little bit about each aspect of this novel so that maybe I can convey exactly how much I loved it. The characters - another reviewer wrote something about how Augustus steals the show from the book's own narrator. I tend to agree. However, that doesn't mean that Hazel is any narrative slouch - she is a beautifully realized teenager dealing with some harsh stuff, and it shows. She is a girl that I think I would enjoy being friends with - because she's quirky and I'm pretty sure she wouldn't care what I thought about her. But, it's true - Augustus pretty much does steal the show here. This can only be described as a good thing. Augustus is the kind of character that you totally fall in love with. I mean that - like recklessly smitten. He is basically a dream character and I'm pretty sure no one but Green could have made him convincing. The dialogue - it's witty and clever and funny and real. I wish I talked like this. Green's dialogue jumps off the page and fills the story with energy and sparkle. The pacing and plot - this is a book about kids with cancer. This is not a Cancer Novel. Anyone who grew up reading Lurlene McDaniels (like I did) knows what I mean. In a way, I am glad that this book only arrived now because I would have been severely disappointed with Lurlene's work if I read them side-by-side. I was warned multiple times not to read this book in public and, I have to say, it's sound advice. Because this book is amazing and also completely heartbreaking. This book will make you ugly cry - snot dripping everywhere, puffy red eyes for days after, that horrible hiccupy noise because you can't catch your breath. This book is devastating and beautiful.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Please read it now. But not in public.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: Bliss

Bliss (Bliss Bakery, book 1)
By Kathryn Littlewood
Expected publication February 14, 2012 by Katherine Tegen Books

Rosemary Bliss is the oldest girl of four children and can't but feel like she is nothing special. Her older brother Thyme (or Ty) is incredibly handsome, her younger brother Sage is very funny and destined to be famous, and the baby Parsley (or Leigh) is just so adorable. Rose feels like she'll never live up to the rest of her family and believes even her parents don't like her as much as they like her brothers and sister. And there is something special about the bakery that the Bliss family runs - all the food they make seems just a little bit too good to be true. A little bit when Rose's parents have to leave the bakery, Rose wants to use this as an opportunity to prove she belongs in this family, too.

I picked this up sort of on a whim at Midwinter but, come on, magic bakery? Sounds a little like Chocolat for kids. I really liked this book. It is fun and easy reading and Rose is a nice, complex heroine. It's not just about how she wants to have some of the magic her parents do; it's also about how she just doesn't feel like she fits in with her family. I imagine a lot of kids could relate to this, especially those who have siblings that outshine them in certain aspects. In addition, Rose just doesn't feel all that comfortable with herself - she knows she's not very pretty or funny and she's too old to be adorable anymore. She is dependable and good at math, but Rose realizes that kids her age don't place any value on these qualities. I can also imagine a lot of kids relating to this. Plus, there is magic in this book. Really cool magic. I loved learning about the different recipes and magical ingredients the Bliss family used. The only thing, for me, that didn't really work was how obvious the villain was. Perhaps this won't be as much of a problem for kids but it made me feel like Rose was being a little too silly sometimes to not spot the answer. All in all, though, I think this is a delightful book that should be enjoyed by kids looking for fun fantasy.

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

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (4)

The Boy from the Dragon Palace
By Margaret Read MacDonald, illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa
Published 2011 by Albert Whitman & Company
After leaving a gift for the Dragon King, a peasant receives a wish-granting snot-nosed boy in return. This folk tale is kinda gross - the boy shoots his gifts from his snotty nose. As such, it doesn't really appeal to me. It's a familiar tale, though - the peasant consistently demands more and more, never satisfied with what he has. The illustrations are bright and colorful but overall I was underwhelmed by this one.

Happy Pig Day!
By Mo Willems
Published 2011 by Hyperion Children
Another installment in the fantastic Elephant & Piggie series, though not technically a picture book (generally this is classed as Early Reader). However, since I don't read enough Early Reader books to have their own special day, I'm going to include those I do read here. I'm pretty much convinced that Willems can do no wrong, especially when it comes to Elephant & Piggie. This one had me worried while I read but a very clever ending had everything worked out. Love, love, love this!

Charlie and Kiwi: An Evolutionary Adventure
By the New York Hall of Science, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Published 2011 by Atheneum
I'll pretty much read anything illustrated by Reynolds, so when this stumbled across my desk, I gave it a whirl. It's a relatively subtle story to introduce kids to evolution, though it's pretty wordy and would be better suited to an elementary age crowd. I love Reynolds style no matter what he's drawing. And my conclusion after reading this book is that kiwis are awesome (the bird, not the fruit - though I enjoy the fruit as well). An interesting story.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Aliens on Vacation

Aliens on Vacation
By Clete Barrett Smith
Published 2011 by Disney

Yet another of the 2013 Bluebonnet nominees, this is a book I probably wouldn't have picked up otherwise. Scrub (also known as David) is being forced to spend his summer with his grandmother at her totally whacked-out hotel - the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast. This is pretty much the last thing he wants to be doing. But Scrub soon finds out that the space theme may be for more than just show...

Aliens and space-y things are not really my cup of tea. I can't really explain it to you but it's a pretty safe bet I'm not going to be interested if it takes place in space or aliens are involved. However, I was a little less hesitant about this one because it received a pretty good review from one of my favorite book blogs. I agree with a lot of what they said in their review - this book is fun. Scrub is a main character that you can easily relate to and who you want to see succeed. My favorite thing about this book, though, is that it's not just about a boy who has to deal with aliens on earth - it's a story about a boy who feels alone, who wonders if he actually likes being called Scrub, who begins to understand himself a little better over this summer. It's also about a boy who doesn't know how to talk to girls but desperately wants to figure it out. This is, at its heart, a really wonderful coming-of-age story. Scrub (or David, you'll find out if you read it) begins to question his life at home while spending the summer with his grandmother - where things are totally different, even if you don't count the aliens. This book is very smart and helps readers understand that maybe things aren't always what they seem - and, once again, I'm not just talking about the aliens. A very surprising read for me because I enjoyed it much more than I could have guessed. I'll be looking forward to the next installment and recommending this to kids.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Review: Benjamin Franklinstein Lives!

Benjamin Franklinstein Lives!
By Matthew McElligott and Larry Tuxbury
Published 2010 by Putnam Juvenile

Another 2013 Bluebonnet nominee - Victor's life is changed when Mr. Frank Benjamin rents the basement apartment from his mom. It turns out Mr. Benjamin is actually Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and esteemed inventor who never really died - just spent the last 200 years in suspended animation. Now, Victor must help Ben figure out why he was awakened, solve the mystery of where the Prometheans have gone and, oh yeah, finish his science fair project.

Yet another book that sounded almost perfectly up my alley, I was really looking forward to this one. Once again, though, I found myself underwhelmed with the end result. I expected this book to be a lot funnier than it was - it's a premise ripe with hilarity and yet I only laughed out loud a couple times. Additionally, I never really found myself rooting for Victor. It's not impossible for me to enjoy a book if I don't care for the main character (see my Hunger Games review) but this book doesn't have much else going for it either. I really, really wanted to like this one, but it was a disappointment. However, I have to confess that it did hook me a bit - the mystery of the Prometheans is a curious one - so I may pick up the second book and see what happens.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Review: The Rivals

The Rivals (Mockingbirds, book 2)
By Daisy Whitney
Expected publication February 6, 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Read my review of the first book here.

Alex is now a member of the underground justice system that keeps her elite boarding school running smoothly. But when a new case is dropped at her feet involving a suspect cheating ring, Alex begins to think she might be in over her head.

The first book is this series surprised me because it dealt really well with a sensitive and difficult topic. After finishing it, I expressed my doubts about reading the next book in the series. Unfortunately, my doubts were pretty much spot-on. As much as I enjoyed the first book, this second book fell horribly short. I basically had to slog my way through this one. The doubts I expressed about finding a compelling enough storyline to compare with the first book were proved accurate. I absolutely had no interest in reading about this suspected cheating ring. This book does still deal well with the continued repercussions of Alex's attack - she still questions herself and has flashbacks - but otherwise, even Alex as a character was not that interesting anymore. I found her slipping into cliched behavior throughout the novel (like being ridiculously oblivious to her boyfriend's jealousy) and was generally annoyed by the whole book. I don't expect to be reading any others in the series (which I imagine will continue). Please don't ignore the first book, though - I still recommend that one!

Review: Play, Louis, Play

Play, Louis, Play: The True Story of a Boy and His Horn
By Muriel Harris Weinstein, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Published 2010 by Bloomsbury USA Children's Books

This is one of the 2013 Bluebonnet nominees, which I'm hoping to read all of before the demand for them gets too crazy. Here, we get the story on Louis Armstrong from the source who knows him best - his very first horn.

Once again, I am struck by discovering things I never knew from reading children's books - I finally know why Armstrong was called Satchmo, something I have always wondered. This is a quick and easy read, told in short chapters that illustrate pieces of young Armstrong's life. I think what I like best about this book is the way it is told. It's a very unique narration - from the point of view of Armstrong's horn - which could have turned out to feel pretty gimmicky. Instead, this book actually reads like you might expect a horn to talk. It's rhythmic and jazzy and fun. This book really only covers the beginning of Armstrong's life, but it is evocative enough that readers might seek out more information on their own. There's a pretty good author's note at the end, as well as a bibliography and a glossary of jazz terms. I thought this was a really interesting and fun read.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (3)

Beauty and the Beast
By Jan Brett
Published 2011 by Putnam Juvenile (originally published 1989 by Clarion)
We all know the story of Beauty and the Beast. And we all know Jan Brett. This is a marriage of two things most people know and love. Featuring her typically lush illustrations, Brett does make an interesting choice to represent the beast as a real creature (a wild boar, albeit an oversized one). Brett has also changed the reasoning behind the curse bestowed upon the beast but it still makes a good point to the story. There is an odd sort of food theme throughout this version but overall, I enjoyed her version and am glad to see it being reprinted.

Limelight Larry
By Leigh Hodgkinson
Published 2010 by Orchard
Here is Limelight Larry, starring in his very own picture book. But he does not want to share his glory with his friends. Unfortunately for him, they just keep showing up. This is a good book about selfishness and learning how to share with a fantastic color palette and wonderful characters. I actually laughed out loud at the wolf. The illustrations are done in a really fun, crafty style. This book is great for print awareness.

My Name is Elizabeth
By Annika Dunklee, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
Published 2011 by Kids Can Press
This is a simple story about Elizabeth - not Liz or Beth or any of the other names people insist on calling her, even though her name is quite clearly Elizabeth. The book follows along as she learns to communicate and how important this is with family and friends. It's told entirely through dialogue, which would be a great jumping off point for an activity. I can see this book opening great conversations about names and whatnot. The illustrations are graphic design-ish and retro and I really like the look of this book.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review: The Storm in the Barn

The Storm in the Barn
By Matt Phelan
Published 2009 by Candlewick Press

This is another Bluebonnet book that I didn’t manage to get my hands on until recently, but it’s another one that I had heard about elsewhere and was interested in reading. If you’ve been reading the blog or if you know me, it’s no secret that I’m a big historical fiction fan (a surprisingly recent development). I also really enjoy graphic novels. This book is a marriage of these two things that I love dearly.

In Dust Bowl Kansas, Jack must figure out how to survive, deal with the consequences, and help his family in any way he can. After reading the wonderful Out of the Dust last year, the Dust Bowl has become a recent fascination of mine. I was very interested to see how Phelan would tell this story, especially in a graphic format. After reading the book, though, my thoughts are a bit muddled. I’m not sure what to really say about this book because I’m not sure how I really feel about this book. Phelan’s visual work on this novel is fantastic – his style is distinctive and evocative. The color palette he chose perfectly suits the time period he is writing and drawing about. However, the story he chose to tell here didn’t capture me as much as the artwork. I know “weird” is not a great descriptive word, but that’s what I come up with after finishing the book. I really don’t know how kids will feel about this book – the plot is a bit supernatural but not in a way that I think would be readily recognized and accepted by kids. Or maybe that’s my own personal bias; I can’t really say. Either way, I didn’t come away from this book feeling like I read something awesome or wanting to recommend it to everyone I know. This was a bit of a disappointment for me, I’m afraid.