Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: Alanna: The First Adventure

Alanna: The First Adventure
By Tamora Pierce
Published 1983 by Atheneum Books

Alan of Trebond is determined to be the best knight his kingdom has ever seen. But he's also hiding a big secret - he's really Alanna, a girl forbidden from being a knight. Can she work her way up the ranks and prove her worth without being discovered?

All right, guys. Here it is. The moment I've been dreading. The moment when I admit probably my most egregious crime against librarianhood: this is the first Tamora Pierce book I've ever read. And I've only just read it now, at nearly age 30 and 30 years after it was published. I KNOW, OKAY. It pains me to admit this, but I feel like I'm a better person for doing so. Rest assured, dear readers, that this will not be the last Tamora Pierce I read.

By the time I got around to reading a lot of the fantasy I missed as an older child and teenager, Pierce's books didn't really sound that exciting to me. Yes, I knew Pierce had a rabid and large fanbase. But it took her winning the Edwards Award and my participation in the Hub Reading Challenge for me to finally pick up one of her books. I am so glad I did, even if I should have done so long before now.

I find myself hard-pressed to explain what it is about this book that I enjoyed so much and what I think makes it good. I feel like it's a deceptively simple story, both in terms of plot and in terms of its telling. The trope of disguising one's identity to attain the life one truly wants is an old and well-trodden one, but there is something about Pierce's handling of it that makes it readable and delightful.

Perhaps it is Alanna herself. She is stubborn - well, maybe headstrong is a more polite way of putting it. She is instantly likeable and, though I'm not sure we get a truly in-depth portrait of her here in book one, I definitely want to spend more time with her and learn more about her in subsequent books.

Perhaps it is Pierce's writing - lots of dialogue and action, short chapters, a short book overall; all elements of a page-turning book. And yet, despite its simplicity, I never felt like the book was lacking. I never thought to myself that Pierce done a disservice to the story in order to maintain a low page count and a quick read. I only wished it to be longer because I was enjoying it so much.

Whatever it is that Pierce has bewitched me with, I'm certainly glad for it. I will be devouring her entire catalog of books as soon as possible.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm (Grisha, book two)
By Leigh Bardugo
Published 2013 by Henry Holt and Co.

WARNING: There may be spoilers for book one ahead. To read my review of that title, go here.

Alina is living a completely different life than she had just a few short months ago. Hunted and on the run because of her tremendous powers, Alina wishes only to make a life with Mal. Things are not so simple, though, and it isn't long before the Darkling emerges once again, threatening Alina and everything she holds dear.

After being initially reluctant to read the first book, I devoured it and eagerly anticipated book two's release. I knew this would be one of the first ARCs to disappear from the publisher's booth at TLA so I was unsurprised but still disappointed when I didn't manage to snag one. And so I waited for the release date, knowing my name was at the top of the holds list.

One of the things I loved most about the first book was the worldbuilding, and I think Bardugo has continued to do that extremely well in book two. Readers are given more knowledge about the world of Ravka and the magic that inhabits it throughout this story, while also following Alina and Mal and their struggles to escape from the Darkling and protect their country. In book one, I found Alina to be sometimes annoying, but I really loved the direction her character took in this story. I love that Bardugo has aligned her so closely with the Darkling, leaving readers to question whether or not they should really be rooting for her. I was disappointed in the melodrama surrounding Alina and Mal's relationship - there were a number of times where it seemed like a simple apology or explanation would have cleared the air between the two but they were both too stubborn or obtuse to realize it. It was a bit frustrating watching their relationship and its seemingly invented stumbling blocks.

There is a lot of action in this book, which I think keeps it moving along at a fairly quick pace, though I did find some of the bits without action scenes to drag a little. I loved the introduction of Sturmhond - what a fantastic character! I don't know how Bardugo does it - keeping me interested in all my old favorites and enticing me with new ones. Sturmhond provides a lot of the comedy in this book and I think it works really well here - I nearly always enjoy some humor mixed in with my dark adventures.

I also loved Bardugo's further exploration of religion in this book. I thought it was really well-done and thought-provoking, and provided even more issues for Alina to deal with. I think this is a brilliant series and I cannot wait for book three. I'm expecting it to be absolutely fantastic.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Program: Video Games Live

Ahh, I know, I've been slacking on my program recap posts, as evidenced by the fact that I still haven't finished writing up all my summer programs and it's now halfway through October. Regardless, here we are, once again recapping a hugely popular summer program.

This program grew out of one we held during spring break based on Angry Birds. That program was geared toward a younger audience and on a smaller scale. For the summer, the teen librarian and I joined forces to hold a tween/teen program on a much larger scale. We had a feeling it would be well attended as we promoted it as an Angry Birds and Minecraft-themed program and we weren't wrong. Here's what we did!

Live action Angry Birds: a scaled-down version of this had been a part of the earlier program but we knew for this program and with this audience we wanted to really go big. We held this part of the program outside in our courtyard and used leftover cardboard boxes for the kids to create their own landscapes. We had decorated big bouncy balls to look like piggies and birds and the kids took turns being on Team Piggy or Team Angry Bird. Team Piggy constructed their scene and tried to secure the safety of the pigs, while Team Angry Bird tried to knock down those piggies. The kids had a lot of fun with this and took turns well, though I was surprised by how many kids wanted to keep building on Team Piggy. I think what they liked most was seeing what kind of structure they could build and how well it would stand up to an assault (obviously, an idea for a future science program!).

Minecraft helmets: my colleague had managed to acquire some square boxes that were the perfect size for making a giant Minecraft block to wear as a helmet. She took the time before the program to grid the entire box so kids could color block by block (meant to represent pixels, of course). We didn't have nearly enough of these - they were the first thing to go and some kids spent the entire program dutifully creating their Minecraft helmet. One kid turned hers into SpongeBob.

Pixel art: we provided graphing paper and colored pencils for kids to make art in the pixelated style that is signature to Minecraft. We also provided M&Ms in case kids wanted to create some pixel art that way, but they mostly just ate the candy.

Minecraft block magnets: we bought little wooden blocks and strips of magnet for kids to create their own Minecraft-inspired magnets. These were probably the least popular thing at the program.

We also had a snack table inspired by one we'd discovered on Pinterest with various foods representing things you need in Minecraft like TNT and sticks (licorice and pretzels). If I'm being completely honest, I knew very little about Minecraft before the program and I still don't know terribly much afterwards. I think what the kids really would like is a program where they can come and play Minecraft together in the library; unfortunately, we're not set up for something like that. They seemed to enjoy what we had, even though I don't think it was exactly what they were looking for.

Any tips on what you would do at a video game-themed program?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Octopus Alone
By Divya Srinivasan
Published 2013 by Viking Juvenile
This is a cute story about a shy octopus who is content to explore the reef alone. She often hides from the fish and other creatures around her, preferring to spend time by herself. But she loves to watch the seahorses - they always seem to be so happy and have so much fun. This is a great story for kids to understand that sometimes friends need alone time and it doesn't mean they don't want to be friends. The illustrations are lovely and Srinivasan does a great job naming all the different creatures in the ocean with Octopus.

Oliver and His Alligator
By Paul Schmid
Published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion
I really like Schmid's style - the simplicity of his art and his use of primarily one color in each book is really appealing and charming. This is a cute story about a little boy who is nervous about the first day of school so he brings an alligator with him - just in case. Throughout the day, the alligator takes care of every problem that Oliver encounters. When Oliver feels lonely at the end of the day, he figures out what he has to do. I can imagine this book being a bit unsettling for sensitive kids, but those with a sense of humor will appreciate it. 

Penguin on Vacation
By Salina Yoon
Published 2013 by Walker Childrens
I loved the simplicity and sweetness of Penguin and Pinecone, so I was really excited to see another new adventure with Penguin so soon. This time, Penguin decides to take a tropical vacation. He meets friends along the way and has fun. This story is just as simple and sweet as the first - the only thing missing is an appearance by Pinecone. I think that would have made this book even more adorable. I love Yoon's bold illustrations - they are very kid-friendly. Another great story with Penguin. I can't wait for more.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Review: Fangirl

By Rainbow Rowell
Published 2013 by St. Martin's Press

If everything were up to Cath, she'd still be living at home, taking care of her dad and finishing up her epic Simon Snow fanfiction. After all, she's got tons of fans waiting to see how Cath will end Simon's story. But, it's not all up to Cath - so here she is, struggling through freshman year of college and all that entails. Can Cath make her own way without the help of her twin sister? Can she navigate the world of professors and classes and boys and her own stories?

I might be one of the only people in the world who wasn't completely sold on Eleanor & Park. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. However, I found Rowell's writing incredibly skillful and interesting and I never write off an author after just one try. Additionally, I find fandom really, really fascinating, so this book inherently had more appeal for me than Eleanor & Park.

The short? I really loved this one. Once again, Rowell's writing is out of this world - it's not quite as heartbreakingly beautiful as it was in Eleanor & Park, but it is still so quietly lovely to read that I couldn't resist it. I think it's safe to say that Rowell is an incredibly skilled writer. She has an extreme talent for so realistically capturing the awkwardness and difficulty that is growing up and falling in love. At their hearts, both of her young adult novels have focused on falling in love for the first time, but both have also been about so much more.

What didn't I love about this book? Not much Not only does Rowell perfectly capture the tentativeness and unexpectedness of first love, I think she is spot on about fandom. Perhaps that is why I adore this book so much. Similar to This Song Will Save Your Life, this book was almost painful to read as I recognized so much of myself in Cath. I feel like I was Cath when I was in high school and maybe even during my first year of college. I read and adored fanfiction and, though I don't make time for that anymore, I still consider myself well-versed in a number of fandoms. Rowell manages to accurately depict what it means to be a fan and how wonderful it can feel to find someone else who gets it, to feel like you can really be yourself in front of someone, and how scary it can be to think that people will judge you for what you love. I'm not surprised to see this book coming out now - fandom seems to be everywhere nowadays, not hiding in the shadows as it felt to me in high school.

I'm a sucker for sibling relationships in teen books and Rowell has crafted a great one here. What child doesn't at some point in their life want a twin? I love seeing this dynamic explored - actually, I thought the entire family dynamic was really well-done in this book. I ached for Cath as she watches her father for signs of mania and I completely understood her anger at the mother who left her to sort it all out of her own. I completely sympathized with her confused mix of desire and need to take care of her sister. Everything just felt so real.

I thought the romance was well-done, too, though, admittedly, a bit predictable. I really wished for a different conclusion to the Nick storyline, but I suppose you can't have it all. Finally, I loved that Rowell included excerpts from both Cath and Wren's fic and the books from which their fandom grew. I love, love, loved the ending - completely perfect and it captured the novel's tone so beautifully.

On a small side note, reading this book brought out the sociologist in me a bit - it made me want to study fandoms and the people who participate in them and what drives them to create their fic and their fanart and why fandoms are particularly dominated by young women and why certain kinds of relationships in the fic attract them more than others. So many questions - it really made me want to get back in the fandom world and study it from the inside.

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Constable & Toop

Constable & Toop
By Gareth P. Jones
Published 2013 by Harry N. Abrams

Sam can see Them - the ghosts of Victorian England. Usually, he helps them when he can, though sometimes he wishes he was just a normal kid. Mr. Lapsewood hasn't left his ghostly paper-pushing job for a long time, so he is overwhelmed when he returns to London (as a spirit) for the first time in decades. Their paths are about to collide as both end up investigating the mysterious disappearances of ghosts across London and the ominous Black Rot.

Yet another e-galley I requested in my quest for more middle-grade reading, I liked the sound of this one. I'm always looking for a spooky read and this one is getting pushed for fans of Neil Gaiman (of which I am one), so it was mighty hard to resist. I really, really enjoyed the way this book is told - Jones bounces back and forth among quite a collection of characters, including Sam and Mr. Lapsewood, but also a number of other personalities, human and ghost. In my opinion, it helped move the story along and keep me interested - whenever I started a new chapter, I was eager to see which bit of the story I'd be getting to read next and what was happening with each character while I had been busy reading about a different one. I never lost track of any of the threads and I think it made the story more interesting, as I slowly got to see how Jones would tie all the pieces together.

I really enjoyed all the characters that Jones has created and I think he did a wonderful job of making them all quite distinctive. While at first glance it seems quite obvious who is the hero and who is the villain, Jones does a nice job of adding some moral ambiguity around several of the characters throughout the story. I do wish that there had been perhaps a few more female perspectives in the mix - I enjoyed the bits with Clara quite a lot and wish they had been expanded upon, and I also believe that Alice had more of a story to tell.

I thought Jones did a nice job with his version of the afterlife and the spirits and how they live in our world and what it all means. I found it unique and plausible; if I believed in those sorts of things, this might actually be how I imagine it. I really enjoyed the mystery of the Black Rot and, as I said before, I think Jones did a wonderful job tying all the threads together in a believable and satisfying way.

A small word of caution: I was a bit surprised at how gruesome some parts of this story were. Nothing actually bothered me terribly much, but I actually did find myself thinking it might be a bit dark and gory for a 10-year-old. Kids are pretty good at figuring out what they're comfortable with, but something to keep in mind when recommending the book.

Another small note: are kids even familiar with Victorian England in a historical context? It seems to be a pretty hot setting for middle-grade/YA novels lately, and the more I see it, the more I wonder about it. I don't think I heard that phrase until high school and I'm not sure I would have sought out books set during that time period. So far, I think it's worked fantastically well in the books I've read - here it helps highlight people's desire to believe in the afterlife and brings class differences more to light than perhaps a contemporary setting would. I'm not complaining; I just find this little trend interesting.

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Release Day Review: The Twistrose Key

The Twistrose Key
By Tone Almhjell, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr
Expected publication October 22, 2013 by Dial

Lin has felt pretty lonely in her family's new home, especially since her beloved pet, Rufus, passed away. When a mysterious key arrives, Lin feels certain she is meant to uncover its secrets. What she finds is a new land, called Sylver, home to animals who share a special connection to a child in the human world. Rufus is there waiting for her. What Lin doesn't know about is the great mystery she has been brought to Sylver to solve.

This book was getting a big push from the publisher at TLA and ALA and I was bummed when they didn't have any ARCs to hand out. However, I discovered the book was available on Edelweiss, so I requested and was delighted get access to the book. I thought this would be a great title in my quest for more middle-grade, and, of course, it appealed to me because I love fantasy novels.

I guess in my excitement over the pretty cover and how much the publisher was pushing the book, I failed to notice that this falls into that particular brand of fantasy for which I don't care terribly much - talking animals. I still wanted to give it a shot, as I've been pleasantly surprised by a few books in this subgenre in the past.

How did this book fare, in my humble opinion? Pretty well, though not without its flaws. I found the first part of this book quite confusing - until Lin actually makes it to Sylver and Rufus begins to explain things, I didn't really have any idea what was going on. I don't know if I just wasn't reading closely enough or if the book itself was a bit confusing, but once Lin arrived in the magical world, everything became a bit more clear. I liked Lin well enough, though I'm not sure I fully understand why she was chosen to save Sylver, and I'm not sure she's developed enough for me to truly care whether or not she succeeds.

Surprisingly, what I really liked were the animals and the mythology surrounding them. I liked the idea of Petlings and Wilders and I thought Almhjell did a fantastic job imbuing each animal character with a distinct personality. In fact, I felt like I knew the animals better than the people in the story.

I thought the quest that Lin and Rufus undertake was the right mix of excitement and danger. I was pleased by the twist - I hadn't seen it coming, but once it happened, it made perfect sense and an astute reader would probably be able to spot it ahead of time. I liked how everything tied up in the end; I think it'll be a very satisfying conclusion for readers.

Overall, I think fantasy fans will find plenty to enjoy in this novel.

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: Bomb

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - The World's Most Dangerous Weapon
By Steve Sheinkin
Published 2012 by Flash Point

In 1938, a startling discovery was made: when faced with radioactive material, uranium atoms split in two. This discovery would change the face of science and lead to a worldwide race to harness this power in order to win the terrible war raging around the globe.

Talk about a lot to live up to - not only did this book get stellar reviews from a variety of publications and bloggers, but it also cleaned house in the children's literature awards. I waited eagerly for our library to receive a copy and put my name first on the request list for when it finally arrived. I was definitely looking forward to this one.

As I've mentioned, last year was a great year for youth non-fiction, but this book seemed to continually rise to the top of the crop. And for good reason - this book is excellent. This is one of those non-fiction books that reads like fiction - it has a compelling story, full of interesting characters, and you are completely invested in the plot and finding out how it all ends. It doesn't matter that we know how this one ends (heartbreakingly) - Sheinkin has managed to create a true sense of suspense throughout the book. This was one of my favorite things about the movie Argo as well, as one of my reasons for truly believing it deserved the Oscar - I am awed by the ability to create a truly suspenseful tale about something that has already happened and to which we already know the end. Sheinkin is incredibly successful at this, including bits of the story that most readers are probably not familiar with - the myriad spies bouncing around, and the Norwegian involvement. It makes for a truly fascinating read.

This book also has an engaging layout - text boxes break out naturally from the main narrative, and there is always a stopping point on the page in which it makes sense to visit said boxes. The photos and visual elements add to the story and are well-distributed - I like the spreads at the start of each chapter. They help provide a stronger sense of what that next chapter is going to focus on, and which players are going to be important for this next bit. It's also clear that Sheinkin did an extraordinary amount of research for this project - his source notes are extensive.

Perhaps the only negative thing I can say about this book is how scary it is. I do not scare easily - I've been watching and reading horror stories since I was little, even writing my college thesis on horror film. But this book scared the pants off me. Bomb is scary because it's real, because it brings to the forefront the horrifying facts of the world we live in today - if there were even a small conflict between two nations (and not even the leading ones) and it escalated to the nuclear level, all life on Earth would be wiped out. That is terrifying. Similarly, the descriptions and emotions associated with the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima are haunting - I was left with chills.

Truly one of the most outstanding books I've read this year - highly recommended for middle grade and older readers.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

The Mighty Lalouche
By Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Published 2013 by Schwartz & Wade
What a strange yet delightful book. I'm not sure who exactly the audience for this book would be - a story about a French postman who becomes a famous boxer would seem to have limited kid appeal. However, it's an amusing little story and Blackall's illustrations are lovely (as always), so I'm sure it will find its fans. There's an interesting author's note, though, once again, I'm not sure how many kids will pay attention to that bit. A very unique new book.

Cute & Cuter
By Michael Townsend
Published 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Janie is so excited to get Sir Yips-A-Lot, an adorable puppy, for her birthday. They do everything together from that day on. But soon, it's Janie's birthday again and, this year, she receives the world's cutest kitten, Lady Meow-meow. What does this mean for Sir Yips-A-Lot? This is a - wait for it - cute story, basically about sibling rivalry. It will be easy for older brothers and sisters to relate to Sir Yips-A-Lot's feelings. It's funny and sweet, and I think kids will enjoy it.

The New Arrival
By Vanya Nastanlieva
Published 2013 by Simply Read Books
I don't really have much to say about the story. It's simple and sweet. A little story of a hedgehog who moves to a new home and worries about whether or not he'll be able to find friends. I can see this being a comforting story for kids in a similar situation, or even kids starting kindergarten. Mostly, the illustrations are just so stinking adorable that it's hard not to enjoy this book.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire
By Elizabeth Wein
Published 2013 by Disney Hyperion

Rose Justice is a pretty all-American girl. She's also a pilot in World War II. One night on a relatively typical flight, she is captured by Nazis and taken to Ravensbruck, a women's concentration camp. Will Rose find enough hope to keep herself alive?

Who didn't hear about this book months and months and months before its release? When I spotted the e-galley available on Netgalley, I felt it my duty as a youth librarian to spread the word to my fellow YS librarians and sent a tweet to alert them to its presence. While I was interested in reading the book myself, it was not necessarily one of my most hotly anticipated titles of the year. I may have been the only person on the planet who didn't cry buckets while reading Code Name Verity and who didn't suffer bouts of withdrawal once I finished the book. However, I could see that Wein was a talented author and I was interested in discovering more of her work. So, I joined the leagues of librarians and downloaded this title.

Unfortunately, I didn't finish it prior to its release date. However, I did read the entire thing mainly in one frenzied weekend, not wanting to tear myself away from Rose's story. Do I like this one better than Code Name Verity? I'm not sure I'd say that. Though both books feature female pilots in WWII, I find them to be radically different from each other.

One of the things I truly enjoyed about Code Name Verity was its narrative style - I thought it was clever and original and Wein really pulled it off. With this book, Wein takes a much more traditional narrative approach, though the book is divided into three parts that are each slightly different (and, of the three, I found the third part the most interesting, narrative-wise). As much as I missed the non-traditional narrative approach, I thought taking the traditional approach worked well for this story.

I did like that this story was broken into three parts - it made the story flow without any messy transitions, which I think might have bogged down or bloated the story. As I mentioned, I found the third part here the most interesting. For some reason, this part just resonated with me. Perhaps because it touched upon survivor guilt and how one continues to live after experiencing a horrific tragedy or undergoing a truly traumatic experience - those stories always seem to have special resonance with me.

I really loved Rose. It was so easy to relate to her and she was so sweet and charming and believable; I felt like she would have been my friend. Similarly, I thought Wein did a fantastic job with the entire cast of characters in this book. I really felt like I got to know Rose's new family right along with her, and I definitely shed some tears as they did their time in Ravensbruck. One of the best things historical fiction can do for me is make me want to learn more and Rose Under Fire certainly did that. Wein makes the very deliberate decision to only tell one small part of the Ravensbruck story, but her note at the end of the book made me want to learn more (it feels incredibly odd to say I want to learn more about this horrifying thing that happened, but it's true).

Once again, I think Wein's skills as an author are evident in spades here, and I am pleased to discover that she has other books I can enjoy. The writing is just lovely and engaging. My main complaint about this book is Rose's poetry - it just didn't click for me. Overall, however, I really loved this book and I can't wait to read more by Wein.

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: The Eye of Minds

The Eye of Minds (Mortality Doctrine, book one)
By James Dashner
Published 2013 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Michael spends most of his time in the VirtNet, racking up experience points and honing his gaming skills. He never expects that his actions will catch the government's attention, much less that they will ask him to hunt down a dangerous hacker in the VirtNet. But that's what happens, and it's only the beginning of a thrilling adventure for Michael and his friends - one that may cost them everything.

I found this e-galley available a while ago and knew that it would be getting a big push come release time - the new series from Dashner, bestselling author of The Maze Runner series. When I downloaded the digital ARC, I hadn't read Dashner before (I finished listening to The Maze Runner right before I started reading this - review of that title to come), but I wanted to give him a shot. It's interesting to think about the two different experiences I had with the two books, but maybe I'll discuss that a bit more when I review The Maze Runner.

Anyway, to this book - I'll readily admit that a lot of science fiction is not really my thing. Foremost, I don't like much of anything that takes place in space. Additionally, I sometimes get all muddled up in the science part of science fiction and have trouble enjoying the fiction part. I figured I'd give this one a shot because it doesn't take place in space, I'd heard good things about Dashner's books, and it had some similarities to other books I'd enjoyed (the heavy presence of virtual gaming initially reminded me of Ready Player One, one of my favorite books in recent history, though the books are ultimately quite different).

I can see this book being very popular with Dashner's fans - it strikes a lot of the same notes as his first series did. There are teens in peril, doing things they are not sure they should be doing and being told not to question them. They are fighting against something big and bad that they're not sure they'll be able to defeat. Every chapter is fast-paced, with short vignettes in each chapter, and most of them end on a cliffhanger, propelling the story along even more. It's very much an action-packed adventure story, and those are highly appealing to kids.

Additionally, the virtual world will be incredibly appealing to teen readers, as virtual reality and online personas are a huge part of their lives nowadays. As oogy as some of this virtual reality stuff makes me feel in books like this, it's something that I imagine lots of teens would welcome. I think Dashner has created an interesting version of virtual reality - it's incredibly immersive, and often made me wonder if there was even really a need to leave the virtual world in this vision of the future.

All this being said, I'm not sure I actually liked the book that much. As imaginative as I found Dashner's world to be, I wasn't convinced by it. Similarly, what this book has in action and adventure, it lacks in characterization - I don't think I could even tell you much about any of the characters here. They were all very one-note and not terribly interesting. There is a big plot twist at the end that I didn't see coming and that definitely left the book on a unique note, so I might be convinced to pick up book two when it arrives.

Overall, this is a book that will find legions of fans with teen readers - it just didn't hook this particular reader.

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: Rooftoppers

By Katherine Rundell
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

To the average person, Sophie is an orphan, the only female survivor of a shipwreck. But, in her heart, Sophie knows that her mother is still alive somewhere. When her guardian receives notice that the Welfare Society believes it would be improper for Sophie to continue in his care, the pair find themselves with only one option - flee to France and find the truth.

I picked up an ARC of this at a conference (and with my terrible memory can no longer remember which one). I grabbed it because the publisher rep was enthusiastic about it and it had the siren call of a middle-grade story.

I have some mixed feelings about this one. I loved the beginning. The first chapters that describe the life Sophie and Charles have created together were enchanting and well-written, casting a little spell on me as I read. Amazingly, though, the story began to lose a bit of its charm, at least for me, when the pair made their way to France. At that point, I found the story began to get a bit repetitive and not as lovely to read.

I find the title to be a bit misleading as well. We don't meet the Rooftoppers until Sophie and Charles make their way to France, which happens quite a way into the book. Even though Sophie spends a good deal of time with them, I don't feel like we get their whole story. Where have they come from? Why do they live on the roofs? What will happen to them? The title made me think we were going to get the whole story of the society of Rooftoppers and I'm just not sure that ever happened.

Additionally, I know I may seem a bit wishy-washy on this topic but I have some problems with the ending. Mainly, there are so many questions left unanswered. What is the deal with Sophie's mother? To me, it seems that only one question we began the book with is answered by the end and it just doesn't feel like enough for me.

I feel like this review sounds mostly negative, but I don't actually feel that negative about the book. I enjoyed it while I read and, as I said, the prose is quite nice. It felt very cozy and magical and I think will be a hit with young readers.

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

Review: The Heist Society

The Heist Society (Heist Society, book one)
By Ally Carter
Published 2010 by Disney-Hyperion

Katarina Bishop did not have a typical childhood - well, maybe if you consider having well-respected thieves as parents typical it would be. At fifteen, Kat decided to leave her parents' world for the normal world, only things didn't work out quite like she planned. Now, she is pulled back into the world she so fiercely wanted to escape, as her father is the only suspect in a theft that's not sitting well with a very powerful mob boss.

My hesitancy regarding this book was great. It seemed fluffy and girly and kinda blah to me. It's not that I never want fluffy or girly books, just that I need to be in the right mood for them. I'd heard people rave about this series (and the Gallagher Girls, also by Carter), but that never convinced me to give it a try. Finally, when I was starting to get desperate about finishing the Hub Reading Challenge and a copy of this book was sitting on our shelves, I gave in.

Why was I so hesitant? This book was pure delight. I loved every second of it. Yes, it's pretty fluffy and girly, but it also goshdarn fun. I loved all the characters and how they interact - the wit and tension between Kat and her team is sparkling and just plain fun to read. Though I wished Kat were a bit more self-assured at times and I'm not entirely sold on any romantic developments that I can imagine occurring, overall I just plain enjoy reading about these crazy kids.

I've said before that I tend to enjoy mysteries, in large part because I'm pretty obtuse and almost never figure out the ending before it happens. This book was no exception. There were a number of twists that I didn't see coming and they definitely made me appreciate the book even more. I am excited when I think about more adventures for these kids in the future and I'm definitely looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

I recommend this to anyone looking for a fun read or an intriguing tale of art and thieves.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Steam Train, Dream Train
By Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Published 2013 by Chronicle Books
Kids have loved Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site since it was released, so it's really no surprise that the team behind it released another similar title. This one, as you could probably guess, focuses on trains, another big hit with the preschool-age crowd. I love the soft illustration style of both of these books. I also think they make great bedtime books - they are gentle and calming and I think they put kids in just the right mood.

The Day the Crayons Quit
By Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Published 2013 by Philomel
I couldn't resist the cover illustration or the idea of this book. I think it's a perfect book for the kindergarten crowd - they love funny books, and this one is. I think kindergarten is the perfect age for enjoyment of this book. They spend a lot of time with crayons and have undoubtedly picked their favorites. I think they'll benefit from the idea of using new colors for their pictures. I love the illustrations - even more fun.

Someone's Sleepy
By Deborah Lee Rose, illustrated by Dan Andreasen
Published 2013 by Abrams
This is another soft and gentle bedtime read, though this one focuses on the bedtime ritual between a mother and child. I like the simplicity of the story and the rhyming pattern will become familiar and comforting to children with the repeated readings that are sure to occur. The illustrations are so cute. A very sweet story.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: The Paradox of Vertical Flight

The Paradox of Vertical Flight
By Emil Ostrovski
Published 2013 by Greenwillow Books

On his eighteenth birthday, Jack becomes disillusioned and thinks about killing himself. If only his ex-girlfriend hadn't called in the middle of it to tell him she was in labor, he might have gone through with it. Instead, Jack finds himself on the run with his newborn son, just trying to see his grandmother one more time.

I didn't know much about this book before I requested an e-galley, but the blurb definitely interested me. I finished it this past week and I'm not sure what to say about it. The story is pretty interesting and unique - there are not terribly many stories of how teenage pregnancies impact the young father and less about young fathers kidnapping their new babies and taking them on the lam. I like seeing what will happen next in the story and the author keeps it moving it a clip, though some of what happens along the way seems a bit over-the-top and convoluted. I suppose I should have expected that with this kind of blurb.

The writing is decent as well. I liked the humor throughout the story and I thought the characters were well-developed. I felt like I could understand where Jack was coming from, even though he took rather extreme actions. What I found most off about the story was the philosophy theme. Once again, maybe I should have expected it from the blurb, but the focus on philosophers and major philosophical thoughts seemed forced and, for me, detracted from the main arc of the story. I guess part of it is that I find it a bit difficult to believe that any 18-year-old would be this obsessed with philosophy. Then again, there have been a number of YA books with protagonists obsessed with philosophy or particular authors or books and I don't have problems with that. For some reason, it just didn't work for me in this case.

Overall, I thought this was an interesting book but probably not one that will stick with me. Teens looking for contemporary stories will probably enjoy this one.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review: The Golden Day

The Golden Day
By Ursula Dubosarsky
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press

It seems a fairly normal day at first. But when a strange field trip ends with the disappearance of their teacher, the day turns out to be anything but for eleven young schoolgirls.

I know that's a really short summary, but I think it says pretty much everything you need to know about the book. I stumbled across this one on NetGalley and downloaded it on a whim. I'd heard nothing about it but thought it sounded interesting. When I was about halfway through reading, I noticed it had popped up over at Someday My Printz Will Come (which has started up again, yay!) as a dark-horse contender. I hurried to finish the book, in case it comes up in discussion.

I guess my first thought about this book is the age-old question: is this YA? The schoolgirls are young - I don't think their ages are ever given, but maybe middle school age - which seems to have led many reviewers to wonder why this wasn't published as a middle-grade title. While I don't think there's any content that would stop me from recommending this to readers, I actually don't think I'd classify this as middle-grade either. To me, this felt like an adult novel, centered around young characters. I'm not sure I can pinpoint precisely why I felt this way - as I said, the content doesn't read older and I don't think there is anything terribly sophisticated about the plot necessarily. I suppose, in my opinion, the writing is what makes me want to classify this as an adult novel. The writing is quite nice - this is a short but effective novel, where every word and sentence seems to pack a punch. Dubosarsky manages to be both concise and lush with her prose and it works very well in this novel. I'll be interested to see if this does come up in award discussion how other people address this question.

Aside from the question of audience and the strength of the writing, this is a rather quiet story. Yes, there is a mystery - what happened to Miss Renshaw? However, the mystery never seems all that pressing - that is, I never felt a fierce desire to learn the truth. The mystery seems to take a backseat to the simple story of the girls and what Miss Renshaw's disappearance will mean in their lives. Readers are told most particularly about two girls, Cubby and Icara, though I found myself quite curious about the other girls. I think the power of the plot here is the questions it raises in readers - how would you have acted in this situation? Though the mystery of Miss Renshaw is solved (more or less), I think this is a book that would stand up well to rereading, if for nothing other than the lovely writing and the details that I imagine would emerge on a second time through.

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

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield
By John Bemelmans Marciano, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Published 2013 by Viking Juvenile

The Baddenfields have a history of dying young. The current Baddenfield, Alexander, has no intention of following on that path. So, when he strikes a genius idea - transplant the extra lives from a cat into himself - he's found a way to a long life. Or has he?

I downloaded the e-galley of this because I'm still trying to get more middle-grade reads into my life. This one sounded like it could be darkly humorous and I really enjoy Blackall's illustrations. However, after finishing this book, I don't find I have much to say about it. I think it was supposed to be a black comedy sort of book; I just never found it as amusing as I wanted it to be. Additionally, I understand that readers are not really supposed to root for Alexander, but I continued to root against him even after he had his change of heart. I found some of the deaths a bit confusing - in fact, there was one instance that was not clear to me that he had actually died. I also feel like this book wants to say something about finding balance in one's life - don't do insanely dangerous things, but also don't hide yourself away in your room for all eternity - but I'm not sure it's entirely successful.

It's a very quick read - short chapters and just under 150 pages - but it was just a very strange read for me.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss. As a note, the formatting of the e-ARC was very difficult to read, with some pages appearing out of order.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Red Hat
By Lita Judge
Published 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
A follow-up to Red Sled, this is a fun, sweet, and simple story of what happens when some animals get hold of a red hat. I love both these books because they are lovely to behold - the illustrations are charming and bold - and because they tell a fun story so simply. Both are nearly wordless and make great use of onomatopoeia to express most of the action in the story. Both books remind me a bit of The Mitten, though I suppose the story of animals stealing a little something from humans for their own use isn't new. Very cute and fun - great for dialogic reading.

By Ryan Higgins
Published 2013 by Dial
OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS BOOK - okay, that's out of the way. I picked this up because I couldn't resist the cover illustration. Wilfred is a giant and many people are scared of him, so he's pretty lonely. One day, he finds a new friend. Unfortunately, the town people see things a bit differently. What will happen to Wilfred? This book is heartbreaking and hopeful, full of important lessons for young people. The illustrations are so sweet and lovely - I want to cuddle Wilfred! I thought this book was beautiful and I hope readers discover it.

The Story of Fish and Snail
By Deborah Freedman
Published 2013 by Viking Juvenile
I really liked Freedman's Blue Chicken so I was excited to see this new book from her. It's a very cute story about two friends who share stories with each other and what happens when one friend asks the other to do something he isn't comfortable with. The illustrations are nice - they seem to jump off the page at the same time they invite the reader in. This is another story with few words but a lot of heart and kid appeal. This could prompt some good discussion about courage.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: Coaltown Jesus

Coaltown Jesus
By Ron Koertge
Expected publication October 8, 2013 by Candlewick Press

Walker is surprised to find his prayers answered - in the form of Jesus, standing in his room. But if Walker was expecting Him to solve all of his problems, he's got another thing coming.

I stumbled across this one on NetGalley one day (which I need to stop doing - I already have enough books to read!) and downloaded it, knowing it would likely be a quick read and one I would enjoy. I was right on both accounts.

Koertge may have been one of my gateway authors to novels in verse - and my addiction has only grown since then. While Koertge doesn't write exclusively in verse, I had a feeling when I spotted this one that it would be, thus my feeling it would be a quick read. I think it took me maybe an hour to finish this one - obviously, there is a lot of white space on the pages and the word count is not terribly high. However, Koertge manages to tell a complete and compelling story in those few words.

This book really hit home for me - Walker's brother died recently, his mother hasn't stopped crying since, and he doesn't know what to do. Any book that explores the relationship between siblings is interesting to me, but those that explore the loss of a sibling even more so. While I didn't have the same questioning of religion experience that Walker did, I do understand many of his feelings - the unfairness, the helplessness, the confusion, the sadness. I thought Koertge did a great job capturing the feelings that can overwhelm one upon the death of a family member.

Additionally, I thought Koertge did a great job with Jesus (that is a supremely odd sentence to write). Irreverent portrayals of Jesus are not terribly uncommon in literature, although maybe more rare in literature for young people. I think Koertge gave his version of Jesus the right blend of irreverence and wisdom, peppering important lessons into the sometimes absurdity.

Overall, I thought this was a thought-provoking and amusing read. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: Hideous Love

Hideous Love
By Stephanie Hemphill
Expected publication October 1, 2013 by Balzer + Bray

Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she wrote Frankenstein, but she wasn't an ordinary teenager. Here is the story of her life - her loves and the experiences which led her to create on of literature's classic novels.

It's not secret that I adore novels in verse - I think I've mentioned it about a billion times here before. In fact, I just recently went on one of my little sprees of reading a bunch of verse novels in a row. As it happened, I had an e-galley of this sitting on my computer, waiting to be read, so I dove in.

I wanted to like this book. I adored Hemphill's verse portrait of Sylvia Plath and her fictional account of the Salem Witch Trials. Even though Frankenstein is one of my most despised assigned readings, I expected she could do great things with the story of its creation. I am so disappointed that I was utterly wrong about that.

This book is not good. Just not. The verse adds nothing to the story - it's not imaginative and evocative as it was in her other works and it just reads poorly here. In addition, this book is boring. BORING. I'm surprised that I find myself saying that but it is so, so true. From what I can tell, Shelley led a pretty interesting life and the story of how she wrote Frankenstein is rather interesting as well. Somehow, Hemphill manages to make everything decidedly uninteresting. It seems very odd to say but this book drags at the same time it feels rushed. What is there feels tedious, but at the same time, it seems that Hemphill could have done a lot more with parts of the story and made them more interesting (well, maybe).

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that there is rather extensive back matter: a list of who's who, a timeline of Shelley's life, and a bibliography. Great for the readers who are interested and left wanting more from this story.

I have a really hard time figuring out who this book might appeal to - I'm not sure many kids will care to read a fictionalized biography of Mary Shelley. I'm not sure who I'd recommend this to.

In summary, I wish this book had been better.

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Release Day Review: Eat, Brains, Love

Eat, Brains, Love
By Jeff Hart
Expected publication October 1, 2013 by HarperTeen

Jake is your pretty typical high school student. He is worried about a paper he hasn't written over a book he hasn't read, he wants to get to know the popular Amanda better, and he likes goofing off with his friends. And then, one day in the cafeteria, he isn't a typical high school student - for some reason, he's devouring his friends - literally.

I might be a bit obsessed with zombies - I think I've seen nearly every zombie movie and read a lot of zombie books. I'm always on the lookout for more. When I spotted this title on Edelweiss, I knew I wanted to read it. I like to see what authors will do with the typical zombie story to make it their own.

Hart takes a more comedic than horrific approach, as well as altering what being a zombie means. It makes for an interesting read. I liked the dual perspective he utilizes - we hear the story from Jake, our main zombie man, and Cass, a government secret agent who is hunting Jake down. It gives us a chance to get to know both characters well and see both sides of the story. Additionally, Cass's chapters offer more insight into the zombification process and what it means. I think it works really well here, though I'm not sure how unique their voices would sound if they weren't usually talking about completely different scenarios.

I found the book more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but I think that works here. After all, Jake is a typical teenager, even after becoming a zombie, so his thought processes are often rather amusing. Cass, on the other hand, is not a typical teenager, so it's interesting to see her reactions to Jake's fairly typical thought processes.

Hart also alters the notion of what it means to be a zombie. Sometimes, I don't like this (Alice in Zombieland, anyone?), but, in this case, I don't really mind. I think it makes this particular book more interesting. It keeps the book moving at a nice pace, as readers constantly wonder how long Jake can go before needing to feed again.

I like that the book ends on a very open note. I hope it doesn't mean there is a sequel coming - I really liked the questions I had left unanswered when I came to the end.

This is a quick and fun read that will be perfect for fans of funny books or zombies.

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


What are you doing here? You should be over at the Cybils site, nominating your favorite books of the year! I'm thrilled to have been chosen as a second-round judge in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, so please nominate away in that category so my round one panelists get to see all the fabulous books out there! Of course, you should be nominating something in every category, so what are you waiting for? Get going!
(Also, I'll use this space to put a little disclaimer: all reviews on my blog are purely my own opinions. They do not represent the thoughts or opinions of any committee or board I may serve on.)