Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets
By Evan Roskos
Published 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
James is struggling with depression. He is also struggling to understand why his older sister, Jorie, was kicked out of their house. His abusive father obviously had something to do with it, but there must have been something that made this time the last time. In the meantime, James will just have to talk to Dr. Bird - his pigeon therapist - to get some perspective.
I had heard buzz about this one last year and was definitely interested but probably wouldn't have picked it up for quite some time if it hadn't made the Morris Award shortlist. It was one of the last books I read this year before kicking my "no library books" resolution into high gear.

I guess I expected more from this book. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't quite as amazing as I'd expected. What I liked best was the character of James and the humor that Roskos uses throughout the book. A teen dealing with depression is not an easy thing to read about, but Roskos uses the right amount of humor to make the story easier to get through. He never uses the humor to undermine the seriousness of James' depression, however; it's a delicate balance, and I think Roskos pretty well nails it. James is a great character, one that I think many teens will easily relate to. He deals with some pretty typical teenage stuff - parties, school problems, girls - while also dealing with some slightly more atypical stuff - parents (whom he has named "The Brute" and "The Banshee") not worth much, his sister's exile, his own inner turmoil.

What I'm less sold on is the conclusion. On the one hand, I appreciate that Roskos shows that sometimes, it's not any big thing that is the final straw - a lesson I think many teens would do well to learn. But it's also frustrating in the sense that there is a lot of buildup in the book that suggests James is going to uncover something truly awful and epic in the end. And he doesn't. It's a bit of a disappointment, but I also understand why Roskos did it.
So, actually, I think I liked this book a bit more than I initially believed. Funny how writing your thoughts out can change your mind a bit.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: Rose

Rose (Rose, book one)
By Holly Webb
Published 2013 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Rose is not your typical orphan. She doesn't spend her time daydreaming of finding parents. She wants to make her own path, so she gets a job as a maid for Mr. Fountain, a famed alchemist. Rose is fascinated by the magic she discovers in his home and soon, she begins to see signs that she may have a little magic of her own.

Finally - the last of my Cybils finalists to review! It was the last one I read, as my library did not own a copy, so I had to wait for the publisher to send me one for review. Thank you!

I will fully admit that I had little to no interest in this one prior to reading; in fact, I may have even rolled my eyes when I saw it on our shortlist. As much as I love fantasy, this one seemed to be playing a little too hard into familiar tropes. However, I was delighted to discover that this book was far better than I could have imagined it to be. Rose is a very endearing character and I was completely charmed by her. I rooted so hard for her to discover her own magical potential and was enchanted as she did. One of this book's biggest strengths is in crafting a believable magical world without getting mired down in all the details. There is enough information for readers to go along for the ride but not so much that one gets tuckered out trying to keep it all straight. There are still a lot of things left unexplained, but for this book, it works.

I've seen a number of reviews objecting to the darkness of the end, but I don't think it's anymore dark than many other tween books. It works exceptionally well in this context and, ultimately, I think the book leaves you with a hopeful feeling. I was surprised to find myself so charmed by this book, but I am looking forward to picking up the rest of the series as it becomes available here in the states.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Lark Rising

Lark Rising (Guardians of Tarnec, book one)
By Sandra Waugh
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Lark has the Sight and it has shown her many things. Recently, though, it's shown her that her village is in danger. It's also shown her a handsome stranger who she'll love - but who will also kill her. When Lark sets out to find help for her village, has she set herself on the path that will also lead to her doom?

It's pretty hard for me to resist a fantasy novel - I think I request most of the e-galleys that I see pop up on Edelweiss. I know I shouldn't - they can't all be amazing, obviously, and I should probably be a bit more discerning about what I request. But, almost as soon as a blurb suggests fantasy ahead, I'm sucked in. That's how I ended up with this one.

If I had been paying a bit more attention beyond the siren call of fantasy, I might have figured out that this was probably not the best book for me. It's being marketed for fans of Shannon Hale, Juliet Marillier, and Kristin Cashore. And now I fess up. The two Shannon Hale books I've read (admittedly, neither of them fantasy), I've not enjoyed, and they haven't made me eager to try out her other books. I've not enjoyed the Marillier I've read either (I know, I know). I did love Cashore's books, but one out of three similar authors does probably not mean a match made in heaven.

And it wasn't. I had a hard time with this book. I had a hard time getting and staying interested in much of anything that was happening. For me, the characterization felt pretty thin - I don't really feel like we get to know much about Lark before we are expected to be on her side as she begins her dangerous quest. I found much of the magic system confusing, perhaps because the information was mostly doled out in big lumps throughout the story. I hated the romance, HATED IT. It just felt awful, forced, completely unreal. It felt pretty much the opposite of romance.

Like I said, nothing about this book grabbed me right away and nothing about it really kept me interested throughout. I finished it, so I suppose that says something, but, I finish most books I start, so maybe that doesn't say too much. This is the first in a series, as Lark is just one of four Guardians waiting to be called upon, so for your fantasy fans that can't get enough of series, this is probably a solid bet. This book and I were just not meant to be - your mileage may vary.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Release Day Review: The Fires of Calderon

The Fires of Calderon (Balance Keepers, book one)
By Lindsay Cummings
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Katherine Tegen Books

Albert is not exactly looking forward to spending another summer with his dad - his dad isn't actually around that much and he makes Albert work in the dead letter office. But this summer turns out to be very different when Albert follows a strange dog and a strange letter to the Path Hider. He sends Albert to the Core, where Albert learns of his destiny as a Balance Keeper. Has Albert finally found somewhere he can belong?

I requested the e-galley of this because I love me some middle-grade fantasy. Also, the author is a local Texas author, so that piqued my interest just a little bit more.

If you're a fantasy reader, much of this story will be familiar to you. In fact, most of the book feels pretty predictable - Albert discovers his secret destiny and unlocks mysterious powers, makes new friends, and embarks on a dangerous quest to save the world. It's pretty standard fantasy stuff. However, just because it's familiar and a bit predictable doesn't mean it's not fun. Though it's quite easy to figure out how the whole thing is going to turn out in the end, Cummings makes it an enjoyable ride for readers to take.

This is a really small detail but Albert moans about having to work in the dead letter office for his father at the start of the book. I thought this was a really interesting little detail, though, and I wonder how kids will react to it. Really, most of them probably haven't written or received a letter, so to imagine an office full of letters that were never delivered might be a bit beyond them. To me, though, the dead letter office sounds awesome - a bit like being a detective without much danger. I really liked this small detail.

If the structure of the book feels very familiar, the actual fantasy world Cummings has created is decidedly not. It's a very unique world with the Core and the various Realms, only one of which is explored in this volume. The creatures are interesting and the system of the Tiles and their powers quite unique as well. While I am impressed by Cummings' ability to create such a unique world, at times it was almost too strange for me. I had a really hard time visualizing a lot of what she was describing. I'm almost positive that young readers won't have this same problem, but I figured it was worth mentioning. It's not even really a criticism, more just a flaw of my own poor imagination.

One thing that I think Cummings really excelled at were her cliffhangers. Much like Rick Riordan, Cummings really knows how to end the chapter on the perfect note to keep kids turning the pages at a furious pace. The book flies by because these cliffhangers entice you to read just one more chapter, then one more, and so on. For me, the only time this pacing faltered was once Albert and his friends actually entered Calderon. It seemed to have taken them a long time to get to that point, but then the action in Calderon was over relatively quickly. Cummings also did a great job ending the book on a big cliffhanger, sure to leave readers eager for book two.

Overall, an enjoyable middle-grade fantasy that will likely be popular with readers who've enjoyed the Percy Jackson and Gregor series. I'll be interested to see what's in store in book two.

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
By Christine Heppermann
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Greenwillow Books

Feminist fairy tale inspired poetry, alongside photographs that capture the mood of each poem.

Okay, back when I was a teenager, I thought I was going to be a world-famous poet. I mean, I wrote angsty poetry like my life depended on it. But I also really appreciated poetry - I read a lot of it, and not just the mainstream poets. Poetry was probably one of my first creative loves and I'm a bit sad that I let that love die. As such, my experience with modern poetry is extremely limited. I will occasionally read a new poetry volume in the children's department, but that's about it. However, when I heard about this book and the buzz it was starting to generate, well, a little bit of my old love flared up inside me and I had to read it.

I am so thankful I did. Because this book, you guys, is AWESOME. Since I obviously can't pretend to be any sort of expert on poetry, I can't dissect the finer literary points of this collection. But if your teens are into Ellen Hopkins and the like, hand them this book. If they're into fairy tales, hand them this book. If they're girls dealing with the realities of what that means in our society, hand them this book. Heppermann has crafted completely kick-ass poems that combine the everlasting appeal of fairy tales (and their timeless messages) with modern issues and sensibilities. The result is an amazing collection of poetry that should be required reading for all teens. As I read an advance copy, I can't speak to the full impact of the photos that accompany the poems, but I can say that I think they work extremely well together. At little more than 100 pages, this book packs a punch. And I couldn't help but want it to be longer. Highly recommended and I will be thrusting this into the hands of every teen I can.

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Program: Spring Break Bonanza!

As I'm sure is true for most of you out there in library-land, spring break gets a little crazy. We have multiple programs every day for a variety of age groups, trying to keep the masses entertained when school is not in session. Obviously I intended to recap these programs many moons ago, and now, shamefully, you all know just how far behind I am in my recaps and reviews. So, here is my collection of spring break programs from earlier this year!

National Potato Chip Day: I'm not sure if this actually fell during our spring break this year, but this is a program that my colleague has been doing with teens for a few years now. This year, we decided to expand the age range to include tweens. It's a really simple program. We showed a movie (this year, it was Sea of Monsters) and provided a variety of potato chip flavors for the kids to try. At the end, we took an informal survey of which flavors the kids liked and didn't like (though it was pretty obvious just by looking at what flavors were left at the end). And that's it! The kids love it (of course, they love anything with free food) and it's easy for us.

Fabulous Fandoms - Supernatural: at the beginning of this year, my coworker started a monthly fandom program, based partly on the success of a monthly Doctor Who program. With this program, she decided to focus each month on a different kind of fandom. I offered to help whenever my personal tastes combined with what she chose. During spring break, she decided on Supernatural, a show I've watched for the last nine years, so I tagged along. We showed one episode of the show and, while we were watching, made our own salt cellars. We had demon trap symbols and other symbols important on the show, as well as various craft supplies like wire and beads, to decorate the colored glass bottles we were using. When everyone was finished decorating, we filled them with salt, so we'd always be prepared to keep the demons out. Then we did a short game of trivia, with questions focusing on Sam, Dean, Castiel, and various demons of the show. Unfortunately, though both my coworker and I were excited about the program and expected a decent turnout, our actual number of attendance was disappointingly low. It's a shame because I've seen many people on listservs talking about their success with fandom programs, but we just don't seem to have the community for it at my library.

Anime Afternoon: this is another program that my coworker has been running for teens but we decided to include tweens for our spring break edition. We picked an anime movie to watch (well, my coworker picked one since my anime knowledge is very limited) and provided supplies for candy sushi making. We had a great turnout and everyone stayed for the duration of the movie, even after they finished devouring their candy. Definitely something to do again, though with the candy sushi supplies, it can be a little pricey.

Divergent: another collaboration with my coworker, though this program was limited to teens. She relied on me to do the heavy lifting, though, as she'd not read any of the series and I had. I was happy to plan. We had a station for each faction: Abnegation (writing letters to deployed soldiers), Dauntless (temporary tattoos, and we also served Dauntless chocolate cake), Erudite (book lists with suggestions for each faction and readalikes for the series), Amity (the snack table - because I couldn't come up with anything else and Amity provides the food in the books), and Candor (truth or truth - questions we had on slips of paper that we dared them to be completely honest answering). Obviously the Dauntless station was the most popular, though Amity wasn't far behind. For the second half of the program, we had trivia. They were fanatic about it. We were fortunate to have many prizes to hand out, courtesy of some donations. This was a hugely successful program and a lot of fun.

Family Minute to Win It: for the last day of spring break, I busted out a program that I'd been thinking about doing for a long time. Minute to Win It is easy, cheap, and fun, and I really wanted to have a family version, with kids competing against parents and siblings. It didn't quite work out that way; most of the parents who came were not interested in trying any of the games out for themselves, even when their kids pleaded with him. It was a bit disheartening to see, actually, but obviously, I can't force anyone's participation. Games offered included Sticky Marbles, Unicorn, Sticky Situation, Suck It Up, Nose Dive, Face the Cookie, Penny Hose, Junk in the Trunk, and Noodling Around. The kids who participated had a great time, and my teen volunteers did as well. I had a disappointing turn-out for this program, so I'm not terribly inclined to try it again. However, with the excitement of my volunteers, I might do a teen version, though teen programs are usually hit or miss here.

And that was my spring break! We had many other programs throughout the week, offered by my coworkers. What fresh ideas should I try next March?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: Unmade

Unmade (Lynburn Legacy, book three)
By Sarah Rees Brennan
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Read my reviews of books one and two.

Things are not looking good for Kami Glass. With the boy she loves missing and presumed dead and an enemy more powerful than she can imagine, an ordinary girl might give up. But Kami is no ordinary girl and, with the help of her friends (non-magical though they may be), she'll do anything she can to end Rob Lynburn's reign of terror. Can she do it before anymore innocent people die?

The first book in this series was one of my favorite reads a couple years ago and, while book two didn't quite live up to my expectations, I was still eagerly anticipating book three. Once again, I was very pleased to receive an e-galley from the publisher ahead of the book's release and I started reading as soon as I could spare a moment.

Despite a few minor quibbles, I'm pleased with this book as the series ender. Truly, and I've said it in both my previous reviews, what I love most about this series is the characters. Brennan has created some very realistic (if you ignore the sorcerer bit about some of them) and enchanting characters. They are complex and I love every minute that I spend with them. As expected from the cliffhanger ending of book two and the simple fact that this is the finale of the series, there are some casualties in this book. I admit to getting emotional a few times while reading, simply because Brennan has made me care about these characters so much. I'm completely in love with Kami - though she does come out a bit of a Mary Sue in this installment (i.e. every male character of similar age that is not a relative of hers professes their love for her). But, like I said, I'm in love with Kami, so I guess I fell for it, too.

The humor that I adored is still present and it works really well to balance the terrible things that happen throughout the story. It helps keep the pace of the novel pleasant as well - I actually had no idea this book was 400 pages long until a few minutes ago when I was double-checking the publication info. It flew by for me and I finished in a few hours.

I suppose I have to get to those minor quibbles at some point so here they are (and, I'm sorry, they're spoiler-y, so look away if you don't want to be spoiled!). First, there comes a point in the story when Rob Lynburn demands a sacrifice but then decides to go after Kami's younger brothers specifically. He's foiled and another character offers themselves as a willing sacrifice, which Rob accepts. To me, it seemed out of character for Rob to just be satisfied with the willing sacrifice - it doesn't hold the same amount of power as one of Kami's brothers would have and, though it definitely effected Kami, it's not quite to the same degree as taking one of her brothers would have. Rob has been characterized as pretty much pure evil, so this seemed just a little less than I was expecting.

Similarly, I found the final battle a disappointment. For a terrible war that's been raging for three books now, it seems to come to a pretty lackluster conclusion. I'm not saying I wanted ultimate carnage and the deaths of more characters, but I guess that's what I expected. Everything does come to a tidy and mostly happy end, which I appreciated, but felt a little too neat.

Even with these minor flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the series overall. I'm looking forward to reading Brennan's earlier works and already anticipating what she comes out with next.

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: The Perilous Sea

The Perilous Sea (Elemental Trilogy, book two)
By Sherry Thomas
Published 2014 by Balzer + Bray

WARNING: Spoilers for book one. To read my review of The Burning Sky, go here.

 Iolanthe is on the run and Titus is doing everything in his power to protect her. But how can he protect her when suspicion lies all around? And what if she's not actually the Chosen One?

I requested the first title because I'm a big historical fantasy fan and I enjoyed it enough to keep my eyes peeled for the second book. Unfortunately, I didn't get this review done before its release, but it's only a couple days late.

Everything I enjoyed about book one was back in full force in book two - I still loved the banter between Iolanthe and Titus and actually appreciated the relationships between all of the boys. I like that a couple of the other characters got a chance to play a bigger role in this one. I still would like to know more of Titus' story, but I think I like Iolanthe as much as him. Once again, Thomas explores what a prophecy means and how easily it can be self-fulfilling. I guess I forgot some details of the first book because Thomas once again suggests that perhaps the prophecy does not actually apply to Iolanthe. It provides the main source of conflict for a good portion of the book, as Iolanthe and Titus are no longer just friends and this effects their relationship. Once again, I was a bit disappointed in the lack of the Bane - if he's going to be such a terrible villain, he probably needs to actually be present a bit more. Thankfully, Thomas did provide more details about the terrible things the Bane has done, but it would have been more effective if he'd actually made a more significant appearance.

What I appreciated most is the fact that this didn't suffer from second book syndrome. Sometimes, the middle book in a trilogy just feels like a trial to get through in order to get to the big stuff in book three. Thomas avoids that by switching up the narrative here - it alternates between the current point in the story in the Sahara (where Titus and Iolanthe have no memories) and earlier in the story in England. Obviously, the two narratives come together to create the complete story, but presenting them this way helps keep the book fresh and interesting. Additionally, the conflict surrounding the prophecy provides a small climax while on the way to the battle with the Bane.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this second installment and am looking forward to the final book in the trilogy. Recommended for fantasy fans!

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: The Witch's Boy

The Witch's Boy
By Kelly Barnhill
Expected publication September 16, 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers

The wrong boy lived. Those are the words whispered around him, the words that have haunted Ned since the day he and his brother tried to sail to the sea - and only one of them returned. Ned might finally have a chance to prove those words wrong when a bandit from another land threatens their magic. But what happens when that bandit's daughter meets Ned? Will she protect her father or the strange boy her mother once told her would save her life?

This is the first book by Barnhill that I've read. I spotted the cover reveal months ago and was immediately intrigued, and reading the synopsis only further piqued my interest. Then I saw the title pop up in discussions about Newbery buzz, leaving me even further intrigued. So, when I spotted the galley available for download, I took my chance.

As I said, this is the first of Barnhill's work that I've read - I remember Iron-Hearted Violet getting some buzz and wanting to read it but never finding the time. Now that I've read this one, I'll definitely be going back and reading her earlier titles. This was a lovely book. The writing is engaging and magical - I loved reading every sentence Barnhill put on the page. There was just something enchanting about the way she told this story. I liked spending time with both Ned and Aine (though I did spend a lot of time wondering how to pronounce her name) - I felt both characters come to life with Barnhill's words.

I really liked the magic that Barnhill created as well. It was unique, different than most fairy tale magic, and I loved seeing the way it interacted with the characters in the book. This is not a short book (in fact, it seems that most middle grade fantasy is at least 300 pages nowadays, if not closer to 400). It's also not necessarily action-packed. Of course, there is adventure and danger that comes throughout the tale - it just comes at a slightly more leisurely pace than one might expect. Despite this, though, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I never felt the book dragged. I wanted to read as fast as I could to learn more about these characters and more about the magic and more about their fate and how it would all play out. For the right kind of reader, this book is definitely going to hit all the right notes. I very much enjoyed the time I spent with Ned and Aine and I'm looking forward to more of Barnhill's lovely writing in the future.

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Release Day Review: I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun
By Jandy Nelson
Expected publication September 16, 2014 by Dial

Jude and Noah are twins and are extremely close - sometimes the only comfort they can find is with each other. They both love art and are encouraged by their mother to explore their talents. But what happens when it appears that one twin's talent shines brighter than the other? And what happens when a tragedy makes the twins nearly unrecognizable to each other?

I started hearing buzz about this book some time ago and I was anticipating it. I had listened to Nelson's first book (the spectacular The Sky is Everywhere) and definitely looked forward to whatever she came up with next. So I snatched this one up as soon as I saw the e-galley available.

I devoured this book. I read a huge chunk of it one morning, and then a few smaller pieces the next couple of days, and then the last 200 pages probably in one fell swoop. I desperately needed to read this book - I wanted nothing more than to return to its pages. That is largely due to Nelson's prodigious authorial talent. Much of what I said in my review of Nelson's debut holds true for her sophomore effort as well. The writing is absolutely enchanting - her descriptions of art and the artistic process held me in their thrall and made me wish that I could create in the ways she described. They left me awed by the talent it takes to make art. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a sucker for beautiful prose and Nelson certainly has me swindled.

I loved the way that she chose to tell this story as well. It's a dual narrative, so readers get to hear both Jude and Noah's perspectives. Cleverly, though, Nelson has set the narratives in different times as well - Jude is narrating in the present day and Noah's narrative begins three years earlier. Both progress forward in time, so Noah's narrative moves closer to the tragedy that tears the twins apart, while Jude's gives readers perspective on the state of their relationship in the present. The entire narrative is kind of like a puzzle - the full details of what tears the twins apart are not known until late in the novel, slowly revealed in bits and pieces through both narratives. I loved this choice - I loved the not knowing, the suspense of wondering about the details. I thought it worked really well. And I particularly loved coming to the end and seeing all the details together, how everything connected into a beautiful, complicated story.

The characters are lovely as well. Twins are a source of nearly endless fascination for anyone who's not a twin, and I think having the dual narrative really helped this book. The voices of the twins are similar but also distinct. I found them believable and completely engrossing. I rooted for these characters so hard. I fell completely in love with both Jude and Noah in turns, though it was never easy to love either of them completely. Parts of this book made me laugh, other parts made me cry, and a few times I actually gasped and covered my eyes with my hands.

The more I write this review, the more I think about this book, the more I love it. It's absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking and hopeful. Definitely a book to get yours hands on as soon as possible.

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Allegiant

Allegiant (Divergent, book three)
By Veronica Roth
Published 2013 by Katherine Tegen Books

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for the first two books and likely for this one as well. If you'd like to read my review of books one and two, follow the links.

Tris's world is no longer the same one she grew up in. She can no longer deny that the Factions are not working and it's going to take something huge to start a change. Will Tris be that catalyst?

After mixed reactions to the first two books in the series, I was eager to see what the concluding volume had in store. Then I began to hear reader reactions from the first batch of fans who read it - and none of it was good. So, I got even more interested in seeing just what Roth had done. I read the book as soon as I could after its release and sadly haven't gotten around to reviewing it until now. I wish I had written my review immediately after finishing; I think I'd have stronger points to make. This is something I'm trying to work on this year; we'll see if I succeed.

Anyway, back to the book. Like the second, I felt like Roth did a good job keeping tension high and throwing in believable twists and turns. I still feel pretty ambivalent about Tris - I root for her to succeed but I also find her annoying quite frequently. With this book, Roth has introduced a new POV - that of, Four, Tris's boyfriend. It's an interesting choice and I'm not sure it's one I entirely understand. It seemed like their narratives were duplicating each other a lot of the time and if Roth wanted a new perspective, there were a number of characters who would have given more interesting insights to events than Four. Surprisingly, this was my boyfriend's main problem with the book (yes, he's read them all) - he absolutely hated Four as a narrator and could not comprehend why Roth had done this.

As I expected, many questions from the previous books were finally answered in this volume, though I'm not sure those answers were always as satisfactory as I would have liked. Another anecdote from my boyfriend: he read the book before I did and when we were talking about it casually one day, I mentioned its setting of Chicago. "How do you know that?" he cried. "They just found out it's Chicago in this book. Have you been reading spoilers?" Well, I hadn't, and I guess I missed the point in the story where the fact that the whole series takes place in Chicago was not obvious. I've known that since book one. So, this big reveal in book three fell very flat for me.

The ending is, of course, what most early reviewers of the book were up in arms about. For me, I think it was a realistic way to end the story for Tris's character and I'd likely have been overwhelmingly disappointed if Roth had chosen to end it any other way. However, I'm not sure that the ending worked in the larger context of the story. I don't get a huge sense of things actually changing in the aftermath of Tris's decision. That's my boyfriend's reason for hating the ending - he thinks it was all for nothing. I can clearly see this argument.

So, overall, this series is a mixed bag. It is a good readalike for fans of fast-paced dystopian fiction but they may ultimately find themselves too frustrated with some aspect of this series to say they enjoyed it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Blackbird

Blackbird (Blackbird duology, book one)
By Anna Carey
Expected publication September 16, 2014 by HarperTeen

Waking up with no memory of who she is, a girl quickly becomes involved in a deadly chase. What happened to her memories? What is the significance of the strange tattoo on her wrist? Who can she trust?

I watch Tea Time with Epic Reads occasionally (though not often, as it airs when I'm working) and usually, it's a terrible idea. I mean that mostly because it usually leads to the rapid growth of my TBR pile. This book was getting some buzz from the Tea Time ladies, so when I spotted the e-galley available, I wanted to have it.

I am very much in favor of unique perspectives in fiction, so this book being written in second person definitely appealed to me. I think I've only read a couple other books with that perspective and it seems like it's generally saved for "Choose Your Own Adventure" style stories. The second person perspective is definitely a risk - if it doesn't pull you completely in, it will just feel inauthentic and gimmicky. With this book, I think it works decently well, though I didn't always understand the chapters that Carey chose to tell from a different perspective - those chapters really break the flow of the narrative and quickly pull you out of the action.

My major problems with this book are twofold: first, it's wildly unbelievable. Almost nothing that happens reads like something I could see happening - not the quick thinking decision to flatten herself on the tracks, nor the lengths to which Ben goes to protect her, nor the notion that she is being hunted in the middle of Los Angeles and no one knows it. Yes, suspension of disbelief is necessary for the enjoyment of a great amount of fiction, but for a book that seems to take place in our very real world, this just didn't work for me.

Second, there are no answers in this volume. Before I started, I didn't realize this was book one of a duology - I expected a self-contained story. So, as I barrelled toward the end of my page count, it became very clear and very frustrating that the answers I'd been waiting for were not going to appear. Yes, we find out vague details of the overarching mystery, but the majority of our questions remain unanswered. What does the tattoo mean? What do the memory flashes mean? Why has Ben been helping? It's supremely disappointing to be left in almost the exact same level of knowledge as when I started the book.

Readers looking for an action-packed thrill ride with a unique narrative might enjoy this read - if they can bear waiting for the answers in book two.

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Terror of the Southlands

Terror of the Southlands (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, book two)
By Caroline Carlson
Published 2014 by HarperCollins

WARNING: There be spoilers ahead (probably). Read my review of book one here.

Hilary Westfield is definitely not a High Society girl anymore. After her adventures on the high seas, she is most definitely a pirate. In fact, she is the fearsome pirate known as the Terror of the Southlands. The fearsome description is up for contention, though - the President of the VNHLP thinks she has exhibited unpiratical behavior and demands she change her ways. But when an old friend is in trouble, will the Terror choose the VNHLP way or forge her own path?

If you haven't read my review of book one, you should maybe just go do that instead of reading this one because I'm pretty sure I'll be doing nothing but repeating myself. Magic Marks the Spot was one of my favorite books of last year (I even nominated it for the Cybils) and I was eagerly anticipating book two. I was thrilled to see the e-galley pop up and downloaded it right away. I had wanted to read the book immediately, but I ended up putting it off until closer to the release date and finished it just in time.

This book lived up to all my expectations and the lovely promise of book one. Book two has everything the first had and, like I said, I'm not sure I can say anything that I didn't say in my first review. I'll try to break it down as I did in my first review.

Characters: Hilary is still the charming and kick-butt hero from book one and the Gargoyle is still my absolute favorite. I enjoyed that we got to see all the delightful characters from the first book but also were introduced to and spent more time with new characters. I liked having Claire along for the ride in this adventure, though I did miss Jasper. But I loved Cannonball Jack - there are just so many memorable characters!

Plot: once again, the story is action-packed, full of twists and turns and adventure that will keep readers flipping the pages at a furious pace. It is not quite as exciting as the plot in book one, but by the end, I was all in and wondering if there would be a book three!

Villains: some of the bad guys from book one are still being bad guys in book two, but some new bad guys come on the scene as well. I loved seeing Hilary's interactions with Philomena and her suspicions about how terrible she really is. While is still wasn't terribly difficult to spot the villain, it's such a delightful journey that I didn't mind.

The storytelling, the magic, the humor, the heart: just as good as book one and I love it all!

Though my ARC didn't include it, I was thrilled to see a page at the end marking a spot for a sneak peek at book three, which means more adventures for the Terror and her crew! I cannot wait! If you haven't read these books, please do and share them with all the young readers in your life!

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


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Release Day Review: Of Monsters and Madness

Of Monsters and Madness
By Jessica Verday
Expected publication September 9, 2014 by EgmontUSA

Annabel Lee will never forget the life she had in Siam with her mother but now she must try to make a new life with her father in Philadelphia. Her father expects her to be completely different than she is used to and things only grow more complicated when she meets his mysterious assistant, Edgar. Or is it Allan?

I'm a big fan of historical fiction, particularly when it features a real-life figure. This book explores Edgar Allan Poe's history and the inspiration behind his works. I was pretty jazzed to get started with this one.

The best I can say about it is that it's a quick read - I read about half the book in about 45 minutes one night. Unfortunately, not much else about the book stands out. Annabel is a pretty flat character - yes, she wants to be a doctor, but that's about the only personal information we get about her. It seems like Verday wants to set up a mysterious tone in the novel, what with the intrigue surrounding Edgar and Allan, but it's really just not that interesting. It was clear to me early on what the story was regarding those two, so I wasn't terribly invested in reaching the ending. Additionally, while I'm all for creating new stories for well-known characters and people, Verday's take on Poe was just too out there for me. The romance doesn't work, the writing is just bland, and the ending is very unsatisfactory. It just didn't work for me.

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Lug, Dawn of the Ice Age

Lug, Dawn of the Ice Age
By Dave Zeltser
Expected publication September 9, 2014 by Egmont USA

Lug just wants to paint. Unfortunately, that is not a proper caveman activity, so he must keep his art hidden. When Lug is banished, he discovers some kindred spirits and, together, they must use their knowledge of the changing environment to unite their clans if they hope to survive.

I downloaded the galley of this one because I thought it could be fun. It's recommended for fans of Ice Age, which I enjoyed, and as usual, I'm always looking to get more middle-grade reading in. This book just missed the mark for me.

I think my main issue is that I'm not sure what audience this book is for. It's listed as a middle-grade title, which is a bit of an amorphous category but which I usually think of as 9-12 or 10-14 years old. In some ways, I think this book falls into that category. The humor mostly fits in that age range, and some of the subtleties of the plot would set it there as well. However, this felt much more to me like an early elementary book, one for ages 7-9, more along the lines of Captain Underpants and his ilk. It's nearly 200 pages, which makes it a little long for this younger age range, but it is also illustrated (though the illustrations did not appear in my galley). Though I couldn't be sure without seeing a finished copy, I also think the font is larger, more akin to an early elementary book than a middle-grade one.

So why does all this matter? Well, it doesn't really for the right reader. But I found it just a bit irksome that I couldn't pinpoint the audience for this one. However, it's not my only qualm with the book either. Nothing about the story felt fully developed. Lug's painting is perhaps the thing explained most clearly, but even that could have done with more development. His banishment happens rather abruptly, as does most of what follows and the ending feels quite rushed and unsatisfying. I was really struck by the idea of a kid facing the dawn of the Ice Age, being the only one who recognizes it for what it is and how he would handle that. Unfortunately, this book didn't quite deliver on that idea. I wanted more than this book offered, though I think it will definitely find fans (the illustrated novel is, as I'm sure you know, very hot right now).

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Program: American Girl Club

In our final meeting of American Girl Club for the spring, we laissez les bon temps rouler and celebrated Mardi Gras with Marie-Grace and Cecile! Here's what we did!

We started out with a short presentation as always. At the end of this presentation, though, we practiced our French! We taught the girls very simple French phrases, which they were expected to use throughout the rest of the program (responding "oui" or "non" when asked a question, saying "merci," etc.). Their pronunciations were not exactly spot on, but they mostly did okay.

We talked about Mardi Gras and why it was celebrated, then we put on some New Orleans jazz and decorated our own Mardi Gras masks! They had a blast with this, as expected, because we let them go crazy with the craft supplies - markers, jewels, feathers, the works! At the end, we all put our masks on and shouted joyously for our American Girl celebration!

And, it wouldn't be an American Girl Club meeting without treats. I bet you can guess what I made...actually, I spoiled the girls and made two treats this month! We had beignets (though mine were not deep fried, so not exactly traditional) as well as pralines. Most girls had one of each and loved both, which always pleases me. Plus, there were plenty of leftovers for my coworkers, which they definitely appreciated.

We briefly polled the girls about which dolls they'd like to see featured next year and then we finished up another rousingly successful year of American Girl Club!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review: Nest

By Esther Ehrlich
Expected publication September 9, 2014 by Wendy Lamb Books

Chirp loves birds - watching them brings her to a happy place. But even birdwatching is not enough of a distraction from the symptoms her mom is exhibiting. Chirp is starting to worry that something could be seriously wrong. What will become of her family?

Another in the long line of books I request in my attempts to read more middle-grade, this is Ehrlich's debut novel. It's set in 1972 on Cape Cod, and I think one of the novel's strengths is a real evocation of that time and place. It's clear that Chirp, our main character, feels a deep connection to the Cape and the life that inhabits it, and that really shines on the pages. Ehrlich's description of the setting and the wildlife is strong and made me crave a landscape of dune grass and shorebirds (and that's saying something, because I'm afraid of birds).

Ehrlich also does a grand job of creating a convincing narrator. Chirp is quite endearing, and it's hard not to love her. I absolutely loved the way Chirp relates to others - each relationship has a very distinct flavor and they're all very realistic. I think my favorite relationship was that of Chirp and Joey, two kids clearly in need of each other but at an age where they don't know what that should look like. It was heartbreaking and heartwarming to watch them struggle with each other and try to figure out what they wanted to be.

Where I struggle with this book is the emotions. Chirp's story is so sad and it makes it difficult for me to want to recommend this book. Yes, it does end on a hopeful note and the sadness is not without reason, providing valuable insight and lessons for young readers. But it starts sad and just gets sadder, with a particularly devastating development later in the book that just hurt my heart to read. So, while I think this book is very well-written, I'd want to be sure I knew the reader before recommending it.

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: Falling into Place

Falling into Place
By Amy Zhang
Expected publication September 9, 2014 by Greenwillow Books

Liz Emerson doesn't deserve to live - that's why she just crashed her car. But how did she reach this decision? And what do the people closest to her think about it?

This book has been getting tons of buzz, so when I spotted the digital galley, I knew I wanted to give it a shot. I read it over a couple of hours last week.

I think this book is going to be a big hit with teens. It's very gripping - it grabs you from the first page and keeps you frantically turning the pages the whole book. The chapters are short and told from a variety of perspectives, which helps keep up the furious pace. The variety of perspectives are all really interesting and help create a complete picture of Liz and the reasons she's decided to kill herself. Readers get to hear from Liz's mother, her best friends, the boy who's been in love with her for many years, and others. It works really well, developing Liz as a realistic character. I think teens are really going to relate and understand the characters involved in this story.

Teens are also going to appreciate the numerous issues this novel deals with - obviously, suicide is at the forefront, but there is also addiction, teen pregnancy, and sexual assault. It's quite likely that many teens are dealing with or know someone dealing with one or more of these issues, so it's important for them to see portrayals of these issues in the books they read.

The book is extremely well-written and I'm impressed by Zhang's ability to create a number of different perspectives that actually feel different. Zhang's writing is lyrical and lovely to read. I'm impressed by this debut (Zhang is a high school student) and I imagine we'll be hearing more from her in the future.

I do wish that we'd gotten to know more about the other characters - the brief forays into their lives were not satisfactory enough. I'd like to hear more from Kennie and Julia and Liam and even Liz's mom. Also, I'm not entirely sure I love the ending. It wrapped up pretty quickly and I'm not sure that I liked the direction. But, I can understand Zhang's choice and I'm sure other readers will like the ending more than I did.

Overall, I think this book is very deserving of the buzz it's been getting and I think it's going to be a bit hit with teen readers.

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review: The Jewel

The Jewel (Lone City, book one)
By Amy Ewing
Expected publication September 2, 2014 by HarperTeen

Violet is no longer allowed to tell anyone her name. Once she's auctioned off, she no longer has an identity of her own. She's now the property of the Duchess of the Lake, bought for her reproductive abilities. But it isn't long before Violet realizes that things are terribly wrong with the system in the Jewel. When one of the Jewel's elite reaches out to her, will Violet be able to find a way out of the system?

This is one of the newest in a long line of books with girls in pretty dresses on the cover, which more and more frequently are representing dystopian novels. It's a bit of a disconnect, though I suppose it works in this case. Presumably the girl on the cover is meant to be Violet, who, as surrogate of the House of the Lake, is quite often clothed in fancy outfits, showing how well the Duchess is caring for her. Anyway, enough about the cover.

This book is quite clearly inspired by The Handmaid's Tale but with a few twists. In this society, the royalty are no longer able to have children, so the lower class women are sold into service as reproductive vessels for the royal women. Only certain women have the right genetic capabilities, and there is also a propensity for magic known as the Auguries that comes into play as well. The Auguries don't really make much sense until further into the novel, so that's a bit frustrating.

Violet is an okay heroine - we are meant to get to know her a little better when she visits her family before the auction, but we really don't learn terribly much personal information about her. Mostly, she is just supposed to be representative of all the lower class women conscripted into the service of the royalty. As a result, Violet is not really developed as a character terribly well. It's a bit difficult to really care much about her individual survival since there isn't a ton of information about her.

The romance is also an unfortunate occurrence. It's a terrible example of insta-love and really just very annoying. The relationship between Ash and Violet just doesn't work for me. I actually kept waiting for something to happen with Garnet, because I think that would have been a more interesting dynamic to explore.

Additionally, this book is far from action-packed. In fact, for the most part, not much is happening. It's basically a lot of recounting of Violet's daily activities, which mostly include moping around and worrying about how she's going to find a way out from the Duchess's clutches. However, despite the lack of action, the book actually flies by, which I think must be a result of Ewing's writing. Somehow, she managed to keep me interested the whole time.

The ending is also quite frustrating. Just as the action starts to amp up, the book ends abruptly. My own mistake, I had not realized this book was the first in a series. The ending is so abrupt that I don't know if readers will want to wait for book two.

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: Lies My Girlfriend Told Me

Lies My Girlfriend Told Me
By Julie Anne Peters
Published 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Alix is devastated when her girlfriend, Swanee, dies suddenly one day. Soon, though, Alix is discovering things about Swanee that she never knew - including another girlfriend. But what happens when Alix meets this other girl and feels sparks start to fly?

I won this book in LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I requested it because I'd heard Peters' name over the years - she's known to write books dealing with LGBTQ issues and she usually gets good reviews. So I figured I'd put my name in the hat for her newest title, and was lucky enough to win a copy.

Unfortunately, I feel pretty disappointed with what I discovered. I should have known from the beginning - the entire premise of the book was just too strange for me. I completely understand that people grieve in different ways and I always appreciate it when books show that in realistic ways. Though much of Alix's behavior made me uncomfortable, it wasn't difficult for me to understand where she was coming from. Stealing Swanee's phone, her overwhelming desire to meet Liana, her difficulty relating to Joss' grief - these are all pretty normal grief reactions.

Maybe my problem is just that I didn't believe the relationship between Alix and Swanee. The book starts after Swanee's death, so readers never really get a first-hand look at the relationship between the two. However, Alix does describe it frequently, and it never sounds like a good relationship. Swanee comes off manipulative and deceitful, selfish and uncaring. Really, she sounds like a terrible person. So, that makes it difficult for me to believe that either of these girls - who seem relatively normal and self-confident - would have put up with her shenanigans. I suppose it is a realistic portrayal of a teenage relationship - quite often, you find yourself changing in small ways, ways that might make you unrecognizable when looked at as a whole. With hindsight, you might realize how unhealthy and destructive those relationships were. It is so easy to get caught up in young love - any love, really - that you might forget yourself.

So perhaps I shouldn't fault this book too much. What it sets out to do I think it does pretty realistically (though I find the relationship between Alix and Liana to be terribly rushed). I just never found myself invested in the story and I very much looked forward to the time when I would be finished with it. Just not for me, I suppose, though I will try to check out one of Peters other titles in the future.

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Release Day Review: Half a World Away

Half a World Away
By Cynthia Kadohata
Expected publication September 2, 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Jaden knows that the reason his parents are adopting a baby is because he is such a huge failure. His parents adopted him and he's given them nothing but trouble. But from the minute they arrive in Kazakhstan to adopt the new baby, things go wrong. Is it more of Jaden's bad luck at work? Will they ever be a happy family?

I spotted this galley on Edelweiss and requested it because Cynthia Kadohata is kind of a big deal. She's an award-winning author and her books are always highly anticipated. So, on the long weekend, I took a day and sped through this book.

I really liked it. As I said, it only took me a couple hours to read. I was completely pulled in by Jaden's voice - it was heartbreaking and realistic. He's so angry, but it's so easy to understand why he feels that way. Though I'm not adopted and have never experienced many of the emotions that Jaden is feeling firsthand, it's not hard to understand why he's experiencing them. It's heartbreaking to read about the difficulties of the relationships between Jaden and his adoptive parents. It's quite clear that Kadohata did extensive research with adopted children and families. This book just breaks your heart in little pieces and Jaden casually references all the various psychiatrists he's visited and all the unhealthy ways he's expressed his emotions throughout the past.

I found some elements of the plot a little too unbelievable. The adoption agency that Jaden's parents are using is found to be going out of business and yet they still plan on flying to Kazakhstan and trying to go through with the adoption. I've never felt the desperate need that perhaps adoptive parents feel (or any parents for that matter) so to me, it just seems crazy that they wouldn't report this to someone. Ditto on what happens once they get to the baby house in Kazakhstan. The ending is also a bit pat, but touching.

For me, this book is just an outstanding example of a realistic voice. I appreciate the multiculturalism here as well. I think this book will open up kid's eyes to issues that they may not be familiar with.

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

Monday, September 1, 2014

August Check-In

Time again to check on my stats for the month! Here's the breakdown:

Middle-grade: 5

Teen: 9.5

Adult: 5

Picture books: 15

Library books: 22

Books owned: 12.5

 You may remember in last month's post that I said most of the "books owned" were digital galleys I had rather than physical books I owned. Well, that holds true for this month again, and will likely continue for September. I have a lot of e-ARCs for September releases that I'll be trying to read before their pub dates. I also had a higher number of library books this month. Yes, a large portion is made up of the new picture books that came in a few weeks ago, but I also read some other books. I decided that if I was checking a book out for my fiance to read that I also wanted to read, as long as we could both read it in the normal check-out period, I would do so. So, that has contributed to library book reading, and maybe it's cheating on my resolution but oh well. The half book here is a digital galley I started and just had no desire to finished (Undead with Benefits - released August 26). I had read the first book last year and felt lukewarm about it, but the second book just didn't grab me at all. I'm still hoping to do better with physical books in the future, but we'll see.

Also, the Cybils have started! I had a lot of fun as a Round 2 judge last year and have thrown my hat in the ring again this year. Do you have a blog? Would you like experience serving on an award committee? Apply to be a Cybils judge! You have until September 5 to do so. Just fill out the form found here.