Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel
By Sara Farizan

Published 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers

Leila has mostly slipped under the radar in high school, though her Persian heritage means she still sticks out a bit. But imagine how much worse it would be if everyone knew she liked girls! Thankfully, no one has caught Leila's eye - until the beautiful Saskia arrives. Soon, Leila is trying her hardest to express her feelings but also keep her secret. Can she keep it in balance or will everyone find out what she's tried to hide?

I downloaded this because of the tremendous praise I'd heard about Farizan's first novel, which published last year. I haven't read that one yet, but hearing such good things about it inspired me to read the e-galley of this when I saw it was available. I'm left wishing I'd started with her debut.

Don't get me wrong, this book is not bad. I think I just expected more than what I got. With so much praise for her debut, I expected great things from this sophomore effort. Unfortunately, I didn't really get them.

I wanted to like this book - I am always looking for great GLBT lit for kids, and I appreciate when multiple diverse identities are incorporated into a character (after all, aren't we more than just one identifier?) . So, I really liked that Farizan was telling a story of a gay Persian girl. The problem, for me, is that's pretty much all Leila ever felt like. What I mean is that this book just felt a little too simple all around. The characterizations are rather thin, the dialogue feels inauthentic, and most of the time it felt like Farizan was dumbing things down for readers. The plot was incredibly simplistic and every twist felt obvious. I think I just wanted a deeper story than what Farizan gave us.

As I said, it's not terrible - there were moments of levity that I enjoyed and I think it's an important book to be on our shelves for teens to discover. I just hoped for greater things.

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: They All Fall Down

They All Fall Down
By Roxanne St. Claire
Published 2014 by Delacorte Press

Kenzie doesn't know how, but somehow she's made it onto the list - the Hottie List. Every year, ten girls are chosen, and this year, Kenzie is one of them. But when the girls on the list start dying in extraordinary accidents, Kenzie knows she must uncover the list's secrets before it's too late.

I'm just going to say it. The whole reason I downloaded the e-galley of this is because I was hoping for something like old-school Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine - the incredibly cheesy teen "horror" novels I devoured when I was younger. And I think if you're going to read this book, too, that's not a bad way to approach it.

I mean, this book is pretty cheesy. Kenzie (and most of the other characters) is not much more than a cookie-cutter version of a teenager. The whole premise reeks of cheese - a list of hot girls who start to die mysteriously and the one girl who must try to unravel the mystery before it's her turn. It's like a typical slasher flick - the pretty young girls are always the most at risk of being murdered. Of course, St. Claire tries to make it her own with a few details - these murders look like terribly unfortunate accidents. Kenzie, our Final Girl if you will (thank you Carol Clover), is perplexed by her own appearance on the list because she is nerdy and smart (thanks for reinforcing the smart vs. pretty dichotomy, St. Claire). However, of course Kenzie's smarts come in handy as she unravels the mystery of the murders.

There is also a romance thrown in, which I found utterly ridiculous. It seemed mostly to undermine Kenzie's character and give her something extra to worry about because the love interest was also being targeted and in danger. It almost felt like the romance was only there because St. Claire felt it was obligatory to include one.

I will admit that I didn't see the end coming. The truth behind the mystery was definitely a surprise, though I'm not sure how good that is in this case. The reveal feels quite rushed and confusing and continues the general negative tone toward women. The ending sets up pretty clearly for some sort of sequel, but I can't imagine a premise that would make me want to pick it up.

Overall, many of the characterizations and the treatment of women are problematic. The premise and how it plays out is cheesy to the max. If you take it all with a grain of salt, you might enjoy it.

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: The Death Cure

The Death Cure (Maze Runner, book three)
By James Dashner
Published 2011 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

WARNING: There will likely be spoilers ahead. Read my reviews of books one and two first.

Thomas and his friends have, against all odds, survived the Maze and the Scorch. They've made it to WICKED. Will they find the answers they're looking for?

If you read my reviews of the first two books in the series, you can see that they're not exactly glowing. I'm afraid this will be more of the same.

As I've mentioned a time or two before, I'm pretty far behind on writing my reviews. I'm still struggling with figuring out how to stay on top of this, but, in the meantime, I've got a backlog built up. This means that, frequently, I'm reviewing the books quite some time after finishing reading them. This can sometimes be a good thing - with more time to think about the book, my thoughts tend to gel better, and the distance can give me some perspective on the book that I might not have had if I reviewed it straightaway. But, of course, this can also obviously be a bad thing, as is the case here: when a book was so forgettable and not my cup of tea that I can barely remember it enough to review it.

If you recall, my fiance was pretty much the driving force behind my reading the rest of this series in any sort of timely manner. He liked the books, but I think mostly he wanted to get to the answers. As I checked the books out for him, I read them myself, as long as I could squeeze them into one checkout period. I read books two and three a couple months apart and I still haven't read the prequel (which my fiance says he liked best of them all).

As I said, I found this book pretty forgettable. I think what I remember most are my emotions while reading. For the majority of the read, I was aggravated - aggravated at the characters for the ways in which they were acting (which was frequently inconsistent with how they'd acted previously) and aggravated at Dashner for dragging out the story and not providing the answers I'd hoped for. Now, it seems as if one MUST read the prequel in order to get any sort of closure with the series, a frustrating turn of events for me. If you're giving me a trilogy, I expect a trilogy, and I expect some answers by the time we're done. I can definitely see why some people gave up on this series partway through - it just doesn't live up to expectations. However, I know this series also has its fans and I can see their side as well - the action is pretty relentless, so if that's the kind of read you're looking for, you probably won't be disappointed by these. Personally, though, I don't think I'll be giving Dashner any more chances.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

How to Babysit a Grandma
By Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish
Published 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
This is a companion book to the similarly titled How to Babysit a Grandpa, which I absolutely loved when I read. This book is basically that book all over again, though this time focusing on a little girl and her grandmother. These books are great fun because they are silly and appeal to both kids and adults. Instructions for babysitting grandmas include checking out all the wonderful things at the park and letting her pick the best spot to sleep. This book is just downright adorable and will definitely inspire some babysitting hijinks in young readers.

The Odd One Out
By Britta Teckentrup
Published 2014 by Big Picture Press
Though this is not a storybook, I still loved this. It's a lovely seek-and-find title for the very youngest readers. Each double page spread shows a cadre of similar animals - turtles on one page, lemurs on another - and asks readers to find the odd one out - the one who caught the worm, the one who has a baby, etc. Kids (and adults, too!) love seek-and-find books and we get increasing requests for those for the very young. This book is a lovely addition to the genre. The illustrations are quite beautiful and I loved the variety of animals chosen.

Mama Built a Little Nest
By Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Published 2014 by Beach Lane Books
You know, I don't love birds, but I do love picture books that are simple enough to use in storytime but also provide nonfiction information to relate the story to the real world. This book does just that in a lovely way, focusing on the different kinds of nests birds build for their young. The main text has a nice simple rhythm that makes this a good choice for a bird storytime. There is some real-life information presented on every spread to explain about the kind of nest shown in each illustration. Even this information is written simply enough that even a storytime crowd could understand it. The illustrations are in Jenkins' signature style and they are beautiful to look at. A delightful book.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Carrier of the Mark

Carrier of the Mark (Carrier, book one)
By Leigh Fallon, read by Nicola Barber
Published 2011 by HarperCollins

Megan is surprised that the move to Ireland seems to have been for the best - she's getting along great with her dad and feels right at home with a new group of friends. She's even caught the eye of the very handsome Adam and it doesn't seem like it will be long before they're a couple. But it's never that simple and Megan is about to discover her complication - she and Adam are part of something ancient and powerful, something with the potential to destroy the world.

So this was a random audiobook download for me earlier this year. I remember seeing this book around, but I didn't know much about it and didn't know anyone who'd read it. I'm willing to give pretty much anything a shot, so there I went.

Perhaps the best I can say for this book is that I enjoyed the reader. Barber does a lovely set of Irish accents that I very much enjoyed listening to. Unfortunately, this book pretty much fails for me on every other account.

It's amazing to me that this book was published in 2011 because it is so clearly derivative of Twilight that it's almost painful. I mean, even the small details are the same - girl moves to a remote small town, becomes the object of a strange group's attention, and falls instantly and hopelessly in love with a boy who can not possibly be good for her. I mean, some of the character's names even start with the same letters. While the books are not exact carbon copies, the similarities are remarkable. I realize that, once you find a successful formula, why deviate? But this is pretty extreme.

There are no vampires or werewolves in this version, though, and Megan is found to be one of the "special" people quite quickly (instead of taking four books for Bella's transformation into a vampire). The supernatural piece here is focused on magic and the elements - each member of Megan's group has power over a particular element. They must practice and train to harness the power, and the mixing of the elements must be handled very carefully. This obviously throws a wrench in Megan and Adam's relationship, but they don't seem terribly concerned.

This book definitely has the appeal factors of Twilight, so if you have readers that want more of the same, it's safe to point them towards this book. However, for me, not being a fan of Stephanie Meyer's, I didn't really enjoy this one either. If I get bored or in need of some more Irish accents in my life, I might listen to book two, but don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: Mortal Fire

Mortal Fire
By Elizabeth Knox
Published 2013 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Canny Mochrie is stubborn and brilliant - so when she stumbles upon a valley full of magic, she's going to figure out how it works, even if the people of the valley start threatening her. Things are made more complicated by a mysterious boy trapped by the magic, a boy Canny feels a strong connection to. With his help, she'll uncover the magic's secrets and, perhaps, find a way to set him free.

You guys. We have to be real for a minute here. So, I've never read Elizabeth Knox before, but her previous books sounded intriguing and have been on my radar for a long time. When I saw this title pop up in likely Printz contender discussions last year, I was thrilled I'd managed to snag an ARC at TLA. And then, the ridiculousness happened.

The ridiculousness is this: I started this book in July of last year (that's 2013, just to be clear). I hated it. I hated it from page one. I still hated it by page 250, and probably hated it for quite a few pages after that. So, about halfway through, I just put it aside. But I never said I was quitting it. It is really hard for me to quit a book, particularly when I've invested any kind of time in it, and particularly when it is getting so much positive buzz. So, I never thought to myself I was putting it down for good. It's pretty much the first book I picked back up when I started my year of no library books - I was determined to put this bad boy to rest. And, in more ridiculousness, this book proved to me why I hate to give up on books. Because, by the time I finished it, I didn't hate it anymore.

So, let's try to break it down a bit. Why, exactly, did I despise this book so much (I think, over on Someday My Printz Will Come I actually used the word abhor)? Well, it's perhaps the most slow-paced book I've ever read. Seriously. By the time I put it down that first time, nearly nothing exciting had happened. It's glacial. Everything is just so drawn out; I had a hard time staying interested. My second problem was the characters - couldn't stand 'em. Any of them. But especially not Canny. And, you know, she's the main character and all. I found her so bleeding obnoxious that I had zero desire to keep reading her story. Her brother and his girlfriend were not much better, and neither were any of the Zarenes, though, eventually, I became interested in their story. And thirdly, this book is just confusing. Apparently, Knox's books are usually set in an alternate version of New Zealand called Southland, which incorporates magic into the real world. Additionally, this book takes place in the 1950s version of this world. I found the whole thing confusing as there was little to no explanation of the magic or how it worked until very far into the book. I would have liked some clarification earlier on. All in all, this book and I were just not getting along. So, I set it down.

Now, to the beginning of 2014, when I am determined to clear out some of the books in my house and pass them on to new homes. I declare this the year of no library books. And this book sits on my desk at work, haunting me with its bookmark halfway through. So, I pick it up again.

And I still can't stand Canny or Sholto or Susan or nearly any of the Zarenes. I still find the magic mostly just confusing, almost belligerently so. But, the action starts to pick up pace. We find out more of the history of the Zarenes, in particular, the strange one that Canny has discovered trapped in a house by magic. And by the time I finish soldiering through those last 200 pages or so, I find myself telling people I liked the book.

What gives? Well, I can't exactly say. But something happened in that second half that almost made me forget how much I hated the first half (almost, but I hated it so much that it would be pretty near impossible for me to completely forget). I guess the story picking up its pace just grabbed me in a way that made me enjoy that last bit. I'd almost rather that I hated the book all the way through the end - it's really difficult for me to quit reading a book I'm not enjoying and in a couple of cases, I've actually changed my mind about one by the time I got to the end. This makes it even more difficult in the future for me to quit books I don't like. So, curse you, Elizabeth Knox, for making me change my mind about this book!

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than Ever
By Tim Federle, read by the author
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Audio

All Nate has ever wanted is to star in a Broadway show. When he hears about an open casting call for E.T. The Musical, all it takes is a little nudge from his friend and Nate finds himself on an overnight adventure to New York City, taking his chance. Of course, his adventure is a secret and surely will go off without any problems, right?

I think the best possible word to describe this book is infectious. I know, I know - that word doesn't necessarily have the best connotations. But it's really the best word, and I think that's particularly true for the audio version of this story. Nate's enthusiasm and positivity are infectious and Federle's narration of his own book captures that infectious nature perfectly.

Nate is an absolutely charming, if slightly exasperating, narrator. For most of the book, I wanted to be his best friend, but I also wanted to shake him a little. But even my exasperation with him was mostly because of his charm - he thinks everything about his trip to New York will be perfect if he just tries his best. He also thinks New York is a city full of magic, leading him to look at even the most mundane things through magic-filled eyes. This could completely backfire and come off as insincere and cloying, but Federle makes it work perfectly. It's such a thrilling sense of appreciation that Nate has; it reminded me of being young and discovering new things and what amazing potential they held.

This book is full of so much charm and completely perfect turns of phrase. Federle was clearly born to write this book. There are lots of little lessons sprinkled throughout the story, feeling quite natural. I think reading this book will leave any reader a better and more compassionate person. I'm very much looking forward to picking up Nate's next adventure.

Also, my personal new favorite things: failed Broadway show curses. This is only the most genius thing ever. Thank you, Mr. Federle.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

By Tim Warnes
Published 2014 by Tiger Tales
Mole likes to label things, but when he comes across something he's never seen before, how will be label it? This is a really cute book, particularly appealing to analytical-minded children who like to understand things in certain ways. This book is great for vocabulary and can easily lend itself to extension activities. The illustrations are bold and suit the text well. A lot of fun - I'd like to use this in a storytime and see how the kids react.

Big and Small
By Elizabeth Bennett, illustrated by Jane Chapman
Published 2014 by Tiger Tales
I picked this one up because of the illustrations by Jane Chapman - I love her soft, friendly style, so I'm always willing to check out a book she's illustrated. This is a very lovely story of a friendship between Big and Small (a bear and a mouse), showcasing how they help each other throughout their day. The text highlights big and small differences, making this a good book for showcasing print awareness. It's an adorable way to show that we all need help sometimes, even when we are big.

Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale
By Sally Lloyd-Jones
Published 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
Wow, I read this book quite some time ago and forgot about it, but now I'm kicking myself because it's actually pretty great. Doreen is a little round fish who sets out to visit a distant relative. She gets a bit, shall we say, sidetracked and winds up on someone's hook. But that's not the end of Doreen's adventure. This book is definitely going to be a hit in storytime because the contrast between Doreen's point of view and the narrator's is quite significant. It provides for a lot of humor and kids will love being in on it as Doreen cluelessly makes her way to her destination. The illustrations excellently evoke the watery nature of the story. I'm glad I reminded myself of this book so I can use it with an audience soon!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: "The President Has Been Shot!"

"The President Has Been Shot!": The Assassination of John  F. Kennedy
By James L. Swanson
Published 2013 by Scholastic Press

It's a moment that our nation will never forget - John F. Kennedy, one of our most charismatic presidents, assassinated in Dallas. In this book, Swanson recounts the events leading up to that terrible moment - and the consequences felt nationwide.

This was the last of the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction titles I read before the awards were announced - actually, I think I might have finished it right after the announcement. Either way, I waited impatiently for a copy to come in at the library - I visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas a couple years ago, a very interesting experience.

The Kennedy assassination is a moment in history that I've heard about my whole life. My parents were both too young to remember it (though it did happen on my father's birthday). I've heard the conspiracies surrounding the assassination my whole life as well. It's a moment in history that continues to fascinate us. Reading Swanson's account makes it easy to see why.

Swanson has done an excellent job of crafting a compelling narrative of the days leading up to the assassination and the people involved. Readers learn about John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Lee Harvey Oswald. It's fascinating to read about all these individuals, knowing that their lives are about to intersect in one terrible way. While I understand some people's reluctance to learn about Lee Harvey Oswald (and other sensational killers), I found Swanson's account of his life completely engrossing. I had no idea what kind of life he'd lived and what drove him to this defining act.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is how "in the moment" Swanson makes readers feel. It was frustrating to read small instances where, if only a different choice had been made, the assassination might have been avoided. I appreciated that Swanson took the story into the assassination of Oswald as well - an action that should never have occurred. To me, it's quite clear that Swanson did an immense amount of research to present the story as he did, providing information and insights that were entirely new to me (so sure to be new to young readers). The photos that accompany the text are excellently chosen as well.

An awesome example of meaty non-fiction to hand to middle-grade/young adult readers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: Beware the Wild

Beware the Wild
By Natalie C. Parker
Expected publication October 21, 2014 by HarperTeen

Sterling and her brother had a pretty epic argument and he ran into the swamp. But she never expected him to disappear - and a girl claiming to be her sister to take his place. It isn't long before she realizes that no one remembers him - except, perhaps, slightly strange Heath. Can Sterling figure out what's happened and find a way to bring her brother back?

Well, I've said before I'm a sucker for a teen novel, particularly a fantasy, so that's probably how I ended up with this one in my reading queue. The summary had a slightly gothic sound to it, so I was definitely game to give it a shot.

Maybe I'm also a sucker for books set in the swampy south, but this definitely had atmosphere going for it. It was not at all difficult to picture Sticks, LA and the somewhat sinister swampland that surrounds it. Is it just that our culture has created a mythology around the South and its land that it has become the easiest atmosphere to evoke? Maybe, but either way, it works for Parker here. I loved the descriptions of the swamp and the crumbling Lillard House.

I liked that the main thrust of this story is a twist on a changeling tale - Sterling's brother goes into the swamp and Lenora May comes out. In this case, though, all memories of Phineas have been erased as well, replaced with memories of a life with Lenora May. Sterling is protected because of a charm she wears, but I liked Parker's descriptions of the two sets of memories existing next to each other in Sterling's mind. I liked the relationship that evolved with Heath, who also lost someone he cared about to the swamp and is the only one who can remember. I appreciated that they had a history as well, instead of just two strangers thrown together by circumstance who somehow find time to fall in love while also fixing what the magic has set awry.

Okay, the following may be a bit spoilery, so consider yourself warned and stop reading if you don't want to know. For a good long while, I wondered if this was going to end up being another supernatural book that wasn't really about the supernatural - it was instead a manifestation of some illness or disorder. See, Sterling has developed a bit of an eating disorder because of the stress of her brother's plans for the future. So I spent a good chunk of the book wondering if this was all going to somehow end up being a product of Sterling's starving mind. I'm not sure if I would have liked the book more or less had this been the case, but it would have been an interesting dynamic if Parker had chosen that route. Regardless, I thought Sterling's eating disorder played an interesting role in the story and I liked that it clearly wasn't about any desire to be skinny - it was about the lack of control she felt in the rest of her life.

More potential spoilery stuff so keep looking away if you'd like! I was a little sad when it became clear early on that the real villain was exceptionally obvious. I would have liked it a bit better if it hadn't been clear that the person Sterling initially suspected was just another victim of the real baddie.

In the end, I liked this book well enough, despite its lack of surprises. It was atmospheric with interesting enough characters to keep me reading and see how it all would work out. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Salt & Storm

Salt & Storm
By Kendall Kulper
Published 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The only thing Avery wants is to claim her rightful place, her destiny - the Roe witch. Unfortunately, her mother is doing everything in her power to stop it. But when Avery has a dream about her own murder, she becomes desperate to awaken her powers. Desperate enough to agree to help Tane, a tattooed stranger with power of his own. Will he be Avery's salvation or her downfall?

Witches - I know, they're a little old school, but I like a good witch story. I was drawn to the premise of this one - a girl being denied her birthright - as well as the simple yet eye-catching cover (I know, very superficial of me, but sometimes it's true!). Sadly, this book didn't quite live up to my hopes for it.

While I did sympathize with Avery and her anger at her mother for denying her, it was also pretty clear to me that the whole situation was much more complicated than Avery was able to see. This made it difficult for me to be completely on Avery's side against her mother - I believed that her mother knew things she didn't about the magic and really was trying to protect her daughter (though, obviously not in the healthiest way). Additionally, I found most of the plot pretty predictable and unexciting. For a story about witches, it seemed a little less than thrilling. I also found the romance pretty problematic - well, Tane's whole character actually was problematic for me. I suppose I should have expected that this story would mostly devolve into a romance, but I didn't, and I found that a pretty disappointing turn of events.

Overall, I thought the book was relatively well-written. Kulper does a nice job with the setting and, when she bothers, I was interested in hearing the history of the Roe women. Unfortunately, she focused more on the romance, losing my interest in the story.

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

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Program: Pranks Galore!

My coworker and I struck upon the brilliant idea of holding a program, right before April Fool's Day, where kids could make relatively harmless pranks they could use on friends and family. I thought we'd have a bigger crowd than we ended up with, but the kids who came definitely had fun. Here's what we did!

Fake poop: because, how can you not? We actually had made this for a Grossology program last year and everyone was freaked out by how real it looked, so I seized the opportunity to make it again. It's a really simple recipe with oatmeal, cocoa, fake sugar, and water, but it comes out looking entirely too realistic for most people's tastes. In fact, I heard some parents grumbling about their kid's concoctions as they left.

Fart machines: because, once again, how can you not? I spotted this little craft on Pinterest some time ago and knew I had to find an excuse to make it in a program. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work 100% of the time - it's a little finicky and definitely takes some practice for full effect. The kids were a little disappointed initially, but after I demonstrated proof that they, too, could make fart noises with a simple wire, rubber band, and washer contraption, they were pretty thrilled. In fact, I think we could have just let them practice with their machines for the majority of the program and they would have been pretty happy.

Spilled milk: we included this prank mainly because it was so easy to do - spread glue on wax paper and let it dry. The kids were not terribly excited about this one, perhaps because it was too easy. Maybe if we had tinted it red and billed it as a blood spill?

Cup of dirt: and to end things on a happy note, we gave the kids cups of dirt to snack on. We showed them how to make Jell-O worms (which my colleague had some trouble with, so attempt at your own risk) and then gave them some pre-made ones to add to their dirt cups. They didn't really care how messy the worms were; they love any opportunity to snack.

And that was our program! What other kid-friendly pranks should we have included?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: Sparkers

By Eleanor Glewwe
Published 2014 by Viking Juvenile

Marah's hope for the future lies in her talent as a violinist. But when a devastating illness begins spreading in her city, there may be no hope for anyone. With the help of an unlikely ally, Marah will try her best to discover the secrets behind the illness and hopefully put a stop to it.

I requested the e-galley of this because I'm a sucker for fantasy. I thought it sounded new and interesting, and I'm still trying to read more middle-grade (but the YA is just so tempting!).

Though I didn't think of it in these terms while reading, Glewwe has written what is essentially an allegory of fairly typical class struggles. Marah belongs to the non-magical class, and her world is defined by this. Her opportunities are limited and she can't help but be aware of how difficult her life might be if she can't seize her chances when they appear. The new illness that begins to spread is, of course, a game-changer. It strikes indiscriminately, for once sadly putting Marah in the same boat as those who can do magic. Through a serendipitous turn of events, Marah comes in contact with a forward-thinking magician boy and, together, they seek to uncover the source of the illness and its cure.

I think Glewwe does a good job accurately depicting oppression in a way that is both easy to understand and not mind-numbingly depressing. Marah is an easy heroine to root for, though sometimes I felt like her talent with the violin was only discussed when a break from the action was needed. The story is quite predictable and relies pretty heavily on coincidence - the circumstances by which Marah and Azariah begin their partnership seem pretty unlikely to me. The secrets behind the dark eyes illness are completely unsurprising, though the story is still engaging enough to want to see exactly how it plays out. Additionally, if I were a teacher, I can see using this book and then discussing instances of real-life racial genocide. Pretty heavy topics for a middle-grade novel, but important.

A few quibbles I had: I spent a good portion of time trying to figure out Glewwe's influences on  her magic system and language. I don't know why I just assumed that she had been influenced by a particular set of beliefs, but I distracted myself trying to figure out what it was. Additionally, Marah is a bit older than I usually like my middle-grade protagonists.

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Series Review: Lockwood & Co.

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., book one)
By Jonathan Stroud
Published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion

Psychic Investigation Agencies have been protecting people from dangerous ghosts for many years now. Lucy, a talented young agent, hopes for an illustrious career at one of these agencies. Instead, she finds herself working for Lockwood & Co. - which turns out to be just two boys. Soon, they find themselves taking on one of the most difficult cases in recent history. Will they prove that Lockwood & Co. is just as legitimate an agency as any other?

I am so woefully behind in my reviewing and it is bothering me. I might start posting review roundups and, once life slows down, reviews every day. We'll see. Anyway, this book was one of our Cybils finalists this year (and, ultimately, our winner!). I knew of Stroud, of course, having worked in a bookstore when the Bartimaeus trilogy was very popular, but I'd never read the series myself. This new book, however, sounded more up my alley, plus I'd heard good things about it, so I was pleased to see it our shortlist.

I think I've mentioned before that my personal favorite of our Cybils finalists was The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. However, when it became relatively clear that this was a favorite of most of my fellow judges, I had no problem getting behind this one. Why? Well, easy - it has something for every reader. Though I despise the idea of "girl" or "boy" books, this one will easily appeal to readers across genders and across age ranges as well. The writing is engaging and entertaining and easy to fall into - though this book is nearly 400 pages, I sped through it rather quickly. The characters are phenomenal - I loved them all. Lucy is full of verve - she's someone I'd want to be friends with. Lockwood is quite charming, but it's also clear that he's got some depths that have yet to be explored. And George - oh, I just wanted to give him a hug.

This book has humor and scares in spades - something I love, especially for kids. It has the right amount of creep factor and enough levity to not scare your pants off. I think this book is basically a perfect example of what I think of as middle-grade - that 10-14 year old age range. So, while in my heart The True Blue Scouts can't be knocked from their pedestal, it's easy to see this book as a winner when it succeeds in so many ways. Just brilliant!

And the recently published sequel:
The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co., book two)
Published 2014 by Disney-Hyperion

After the smashing success of the solve of the Screaming Staircase, Lucy, Lockwood, and George are eager for their next big solve. When what should be a relatively simple case has a complicated effect on George, they find themselves in a spot of trouble. And it only gets worse when the skull in the ghost jar begins whispering to Lucy.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed book one, so I was thrilled to see the e-galley of book two available. I downloaded and read it furiously in one weekend. I definitely recommend it as highly as the first, and I'm just as excited to see what will come next for the agents of Lockwood & Co. The characters are just as delightful as ever. I've seen some complaints that this book focuses on George, who appears to be most people's least favorite character. I did not have this problem - I adore George just as much as Lucy and Lockwood and I like that Stroud seems willing to give each character their own chance to shine.

Once again, this book has a near-perfect blend of spooks and laughs. It's creepy but also highly amusing and I think kids will definitely appreciate that mix. I'm a little apprehensive that a romance might develop in later books - I'm not sure if I'd want to see that happen or not. I suppose it will all depend on how Stroud handles it. This book ended on a huge cliffhanger - perhaps one of the few times when I've actually said aloud, "No, you can't end the book like that!" Kids will be clamoring for the next book - I know I am!

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: Courage Has No Color

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America's First Black Paratroopers
By Tanya Lee Stone
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press

As World War II rages overseas, on the home front, black soldiers are still segregated from white soldiers. Stone sets out to tell the story of one battalion that sets out to prove they can be strong soldiers just as well as their white counterparts.

This was one of the last library books I picked up before I started my year of no library books. I'd been hearing about this book for quite some time and, though I'm generally interested in non-fiction, it's never really a priority of mine. As such, I don't read nearly as much as I'd like to. I really should take the time to read more, though, particularly as most of my experiences with non-fiction for youth have been quite positive. This book is no exception.

Stone does a great job showcasing the history of segregation in the armed forces, focusing her story on the Triple Nickles, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, during World War II. While young readers today will surely be familiar with the idea of segregation, they might not realize precisely how pervasive and all-encompassing it was. By focusing on one story in history, Stone shines a light on the bigger picture.

Stone tells the story of the Triple Nickles in an engaging fashion, introducing the major players that led to their development and their personal stories. As with many juvenile non-fiction books, I was surprised to learn things I'd never known before - the story of the Japanese balloon bombs was particularly disheartening to be discovering only now. If I, as an adult with allegedly more knowledge, find myself fascinated by what I can learn from a well-written and engaging title such as this, think of what this could unlock for the right young reader.

Layout and back matter are well-done here, though there were a few instances where I felt like better choices could have been made in the layout of pictures and section divisions. I was not surprised to see this book a finalist for the Excellent in Nonfiction Award and I will gladly be recommending this to readers looking for interesting history books.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Sidekicked

By John David Anderson
Published 2013 by Walden Pond Press

Andrew is indeed a member of H.E.R.O., the elite training organization for superheroes, but that doesn't mean he has any special powers. Well, that's not exactly true - his power is heightened senses. ALL of them, which makes him super-sensitive. It also doesn't mean that his superhero mentor will actually spend any time with him - Drew can count the number of times he's seen him on one hand. But when superheroes begin disappearing and a supervillian reemerges, Drew will stop at nothing to bring about justice.

Another of our Cybils finalists this year, I was looking forward to this one when it was announced to me. I don't read a lot of superhero stuff, but, in general, I like chapter books about superheroes much more than graphic novels about them (I KNOW). I really liked the idea of a sidekick training program and I found Drew's powers fascinating (particularly since my own eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell are all pretty poor).

Having recently reviewed our winner, The Screaming Staircase, and describing it as basically the perfect middle-grade book, I'm going to have to go ahead and apply that same description to this book as well. It is action-packed (I mean, it's about superheroes!), keeping you turning the pages as quickly as you can read them. It's written in an engaging way with characters that are so easy to care about. It's laced with humor that is catered to middle-grade readers sensibilities. It has broad appeal across all genders and many ages (superheroes are pretty ageless, after all).

For me, though, what makes this pretty much the perfect middle-grade/tween book is the morality it deals with. I mean, it's a book about superheroes, which are all about dealing with good and evil and what either of those words even mean. Kids in the 10-14 age range are really grappling with these issues; they are coming into their own identities and figuring out for themselves what's right and what's wrong. Their world is expanding beyond the umbrella of their parents' protection and they are discovering that it's not always a matter of black and white. This book is heartbreaking as Drew learns these things for himself. The emotional sense of this book is just spot on for middle grade readers. I am definitely looking forward to the companion novel!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

September Check-In

Happy October everyone! Here's an update of what I read in September!

Middle-grade: 8

Teen: 8

Adult: 3

Picture books: 18

Library books: 24

Books owned: 13

I had a pretty good month this time around, though I still am reading more digital ARCs than print copies. I'm hoping to change that soon; we'll see how it goes.

More importantly than my stats for the month - Cybils nominations open today! Please head over to the site and submit your nominations for your favorites. Once again, I'm serving as a second round judge in the Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction category, so I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the nominations there! I have my own list of nominations I'll be submitting (hopefully no one beats me to them!) - so what are you still doing here? Get busy nominating!