Saturday, January 31, 2015

Picture Book Saturday

Pardon Me!
By Daniel Miyares
Published 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
As much as I don't like birds, I couldn't resist the little guy on the cover of this one. He just looks so adorably grumpy that I had to see what his story was. He's just looking for some quiet but he keeps being interrupted by animals who want to share his rock. He gets less polite with each interaction, leading to a surprise ending. This will definitely make some parents a bit uncomfortable, but I thought it was fun and I think kids will enjoy the surprise of the ending. The illustrations are nice, with the vibrant yellow bird standing out on each page and the text doing interesting things across the pages. A fun story for kids looking for something a little darkly humorous.

Runaway Tomato
By Kim Cooley Reeder, illustrated by Lincoln Agnew
Published 2014 by Dial
This is very similar to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a children's classic which I adore. Unfortunately, though this is a fun story, it's not quite as good as that classic. For me, the best part of this book came in the illustrations. They are retro-style, with lots of different graphic elements that work really well. They make the unfolding of a pretty basic story a good deal more interesting than it would be on its own. The story will certainly appeal to some kids, but it was a little too plain for me.

Shark Kiss, Octopus Hug
By Lynn Rowe Reed, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Published 2014 by Balzer + Bray
Charlie Shark and Olivia Octopus know what they want - Charlie wants a kiss and Olivia a hug. But they can't seem to find anyone willing to share their affection. The two embark on an adventure to convince people that a shark kiss or an octopus hug is just what their life was missing. But do they succeed? I think the outcome of this one will be fairly obvious to most adult readers, but it's kind of a cute story. There are definitely some bits of humor that kids will laugh along with. The illustrations are very expressive, especially the faces, which I really enjoyed. It's cute, but nothing terribly special.

Ninja Boy Goes to School
By N.D. Wilson, illustrated by J.J. Harrison
Published 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers
I said it just a short time ago - ninjas are very in right now. I was a bit surprised to see a picture book written by the author of one of my favorite new-ish middle-grade series (The Ashtown Burials), but I knew I'd have to check it out, given the ninja craze. I liked that this book highlighted ninja skills in everyday settings and the illustrations are perfect for making this work well. However, it probably sends a message that most parents won't want (the little ninja boy just wants to practice his ninja skills, not do schoolwork) and I think the ending is a bit clumsy - to me, the last page just seems awkward. It's definitely not my favorite ninja story, but it does fill the ninja niche.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Review: Life: An Exploded Diagram

Life: An Exploded Diagram
By Mal Peet, read by Simon Vance

Published 2013 by Candlewick on Brilliance Audio

Clem, working-class boy with not much thought for the future, has happened to fall in love with Frankie, wealthy landowner's daughter with big dreams. Obviously, they must keep their love a secret. Little do they know that world-changing events on the tiny island of Cuba will have a direct impact on their lives.

I downloaded the audio of this last summer - it was a book I'd heard good things about but had never really bothered to look into. I wish I had not waited.

Well, maybe I shouldn't say that. My love of historical fiction has really only blossomed in the last few years, so perhaps if I had come to this book earlier in life, I would not have loved it as I did. Maybe it is for the best that I didn't bother with this book until now, because love it, I did.

I completely fell in love with this book from the first sentence. I'm not sure I'll be able to articulate exactly why I loved it, but I'll try. First and foremost, I loved the structure of this book. I loved that Peet broke the story into three parts; it gave the story an epic feel that I think worked very well for what is essentially a star-crossed lovers tale. I was absolutely riveted by part one, learning the story of Clem's family and the circumstances that led to his existence. It is, like the entirety of the book, set against the backdrop of world events. It seems that Peet is trying to say something about history - yes, you may know while you're living it that the world will not soon forget the Great War, but you also know that you won't forget the first girl you loved or your first kiss or the first time you lost someone you loved. Who's to say what's more important?

Part two focuses on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and is extremely informative. Despite my love of historical fiction, I don't really know a lot of history, and I think Peet does an entertaining and concise job of explaining this strange series of events to an audience that probably doesn't know terribly much about it. It helped me understand in a way that I hadn't before.

And part three is where it all comes together and then falls apart (within the story's confines, I mean). Despite taking so much time to really introduce the characters, I was charmed by them and felt as if I knew Clem and Frankie. I rooted for their romance, though I'm not sure why I should have. I wanted them to succeed and overcome the odds. I loved the very particular world I lived in while reading this book, an experience enhanced by listening to the audio. I was completely immersed in the lovely accents of Norfolk and the personalities of the people who lived there at that time in history. Peet did an admirable job creating a believable setting with this novel.

And the writing is simply lovely. I've said before how much I hate when I feel as if a book or author is writing down to their audience - this book is an example of the reason why I hate that. Peet never dumbs things down for his audience and the writing is consistently complex and lyrical. Additionally, though this features an adult narrator, it still feels very much like a teen novel, something that is not always easy to pull off.

In the end, I simply adored this book and am eager to read some of Peet's other work, in hopes that I will find another new favorite.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Monstrous

By MarcyKate Connolly
Expected publication February 10, 2015 by HarperCollins Children's Books

In the city of Bryre, an evil magician sickens and steals young girls. Kym, who lives in the forest, was born to put a stop to this. But, she is special, and she might frighten humans - she must only visit Bryre in the dark of night to rescue the girls. Despite the curfew, one night Kym sees a young boy in the palace gardens. Though she shouldn't, she can't resist the urge to talk to him. Soon, his friendship will expose her to truths she couldn't have imagined.

I was pretty excited when I spied this book on Edelweiss. It sounded dark and complicated, reminiscent of fairy tales. I was very much looking forward to reading it and happy to have access to an advance copy.

For me, this book didn't really hold up to its promise. I was initially quite engaged with the story. I like that the first chapters are short, as Kym is just awaking and is very slowly learning about the world. I liked that this book could be said to be about monsters in general, monsters of all kinds - those that are perhaps misunderstood, those that are irredeemably evil, those that are only considered monstrous because of their appearance, etc. It is, I suppose, a more fantasy-specific version of "don't judge a book by its cover." But that is about where the good stuff ends for me.

I often found Kym quite frustrating. I suppose I had a really difficult time relating to her - her insistence on following and befriending Ren just didn't really work for me. On the one hand, I understand her bitter loneliness and her longing for a friend of any kind. On the other, it seemed so far out of line with her character and her desire to please her father. Additionally, I thought the way the plot played out was incredibly predictable - pretty much everything happened exactly as I would have guessed. I spotted the twist coming from a mile away and was thoroughly disappointed when my suspicions were proven correct. And the ending - ugh. I'm sorry; it was too incredibly cheesy for me.

Overall, I found this to be disappointing, but I can see younger fantasy fans enjoying it - they will be less likely to spot the twist ahead of time.

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone
By Adele Griffin
Published 2014 by Soho Teen

Addison Stone is a brilliant young artist, living a fast-paced life in New York City. Or she was - until her death. Addison Stone was also a troubled young women, who may have heard voices and started a vicious revenge war with an ex-boyfriend. So what really happened the night Addison Stone died? Adele Griffin interviews those who knew her best and attempts to uncover the truth.

I'd heard lots of praise for this novel both before and after its publication, including some discussion as a potential Printz winner. It sounded really interesting and I know Griffin is an acclaimed author, so I was eager to check it out. A review copy showed up at my library in a box of donations, so I figured I'd try to squeeze it in.

Here's my problem: I love the way this book is written, but I don't love this book. I think the documentary novel is extremely interesting and also a feat of literary talent. How do you create enough unique voices to populate such a story? How do you balance the need for many character voices with the probability of that number becoming too many? How do you keep a reader engaged over the course of a novel that is essentially just a bunch of dialogue? I can't answer any of these questions, but perhaps Griffin could.

I thought, narratively and stylistically, this book was a winner. Griffin does a fantastic job of piecing together Addison's story and making the reader believe that it might be true (though I don't know how realistic a teen art sensation is). It makes the reader ask a lot of questions: how would I be remembered? What would the people I leave behind say about me? Why, when Addison is such a talented artist, is she most remembered for her notorious relationships? How do you help someone who doesn't think they need help? How much do you let other people define you? Lots of great stuff for discussion here.

Unfortunately, I just didn't care about Addison so much. To me, it was obvious what had happened to her, perhaps because I've experienced life with someone similar. And, though I love the choice of a documentary novel, it likely impacted my ability to care about Addison - I didn't really get to hear her voice and her feelings. Perhaps I would have connected with her more in a traditionally told narrative - I don't know. Another big part of the problem for me is the art itself. Several of Addison's works are included in the book - and I thought they were all terrible. So, to get me to believe that this girl was the next big artist, it was too much of a stretch with the art provided.

Overall, a really interesting concept and stylistically and philosophically stunning, but a bit of a let-down.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fall Program Recap: Messy Art

As I mentioned previously, our program numbers were a little wonky this past fall. What never faltered, though, was attendance at our Friday morning preschool programs. Apparently, we have a huge population of littles and their parents can't get enough programming! My coworker and I thought we'd have a little fun and let the kids get messy and make art. It got a little crazy! Here's what we did!

Finger painting: it doesn't get much better than good old-fashioned finger painting. To prepare for the program, we taped down plastic dropcloths over 75% of the floor space (I joked that we were making a kill room a la Dexter Morgan; my colleague was not amused). This allowed for - we hoped - enough space for our attendees to spread out. Unfortunately, we did not anticipate over 100 patrons, so the room definitely got a little crowded. They loved finger painting and definitely got messy - one child was smartly dressed in a plain leotard - easy for cleanup!

Painting with wet glue: a project I'd seen on Pinterest and really wanted to try out. Unfortunately, this was not the right setting for it at all. Way too many people and no way to control grabby adults who didn't understand the concept of waiting one's turn. This would be a great project to do with a much smaller group of kids (though they all had fun with it).

Bubble painting: we've done this a few times in the past and it's always been a hit. Colored bubbles! What's not to love?

Footprint rocketships: another adorable project we'd seen on Pinterest; another absolute disaster with this crowd. I don't think a single child actually made this project as intended, but I suppose as long as they enjoyed themselves, it didn't matter. Another one I'd love to try with a smaller group of kids.

Like I said, this program got a little crazy. We expected a decent turn-out but not the number we ended up with, so we ran out of space quite quickly. Most kids just ended up finger painting over and over again, but they all seemed pleased, so even though it wasn't what we envisioned, we got many compliments and I'd say it was a success.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Review: Playlist for the Dead

Playlist for the Dead
By Michelle Falkoff
Expected publication January 27, 2015 by HarperTeen

Sam can't believe it, but his best friend just killed himself. He left behind a lot of questions and a playlist with a note: "For Sam - listen and you'll understand." But the playlist just seems to bring more questions. Sam can't help but feel that Hayden's death is his fault - and he soon discovers he's not the only person who feels this way. Can Sam uncover the truth about what happened that night and find a way to move on?

It seems like more and more YA contemporary realistic novels are being published, and I think it's a great thing. Teens need to be exposed to a variety of stories that highlight experiences both similar and different to their own. I spotted this title available as an e-galley and figured I'd give it a shot. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work for me.

This is nothing against this particular book, nor against books about suicide in general, but I just found the plot of this one a bit tiresome. Instead of feeling like Hayden's story, this definitely felt like Sam's story. Those stories are important - survivors of suicide, those who are impacted when someone they love takes their own life. I just didn't connect with Sam - I found him irritating. I wanted to know more about Hayden. I also think the story got dragged down in romance. I was more interested in the story of Sam and Hayden's relationship and didn't care about the developing relationship between Sam and Astrid. While it was ultimately important to the story of Hayden's suicide, it felt like it detracted from the true story much of the time.

And that's part of what irritates about the cover of this book - it chooses to focus on the romance instead of the friendship, showing silhouettes of what we can assume are Sam and Astrid, instead of Sam and Hayden. What is wrong with writing a book about the friendship between two boys and how that changes when one boy commits suicide? We need books that aren't afraid to plumb the depths of male friendships. In a different story, I would have appreciated the developing romance and how confusing it might be for someone mired in grief. But in this story, I just didn't care.

I think that's my problem with this book as a whole - I never connected with it emotionally. I didn't care about anything that was happening - and for a book that's dealing with teen suicide, I think that's a problem. The story just fell flat for me. I also thought the resolution was extremely predictable, particularly the revelation of who's behind the mystery attacks. I just expected more from this story.

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Thoughts: The Kill Order

The Kill Order (The Maze Runner, prequel)
By James Dashner, read by Mark Deakins,
Published 2012 by Listening Library

Before Thomas and the existence of the Glade, sun flares killed many of the Earth's population. And then, a deadly virus came. Hear the story of what it takes to survive in this world.

I'm calling this "Thoughts" instead of a review because I'm not sure how much I'll have to say. I was looking forward to this book, though my experience with the rest of the series was a bit lackluster. My fiance, who read all the books as well, told me this was his favorite. Particularly after finishing book three and being extremely disappointed, I was hoping to find some answers in this book.

I honestly couldn't tell you if there were any. I listened to the audio version of this and it was an extremely poor choice. In fact, the entire time I thought, "Do publishers realize that not every book works well in audio?" I don't know the answer to that. But I do know that this book was not one I should have listened to. It didn't grab me at all, which really shouldn't have surprised me. As I said, the series was interesting enough, but not one of the best things I've ever read. I really struggled with this book because it move backs and forth temporally and, as I didn't find the story or characters terribly compelling, I couldn't keep track of what timeline I was in.

I don't have much more to say about this. I was unimpressed. I think it's safe to say that Dashner is not an author for me.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: The Story Thieves

The Story Thieves (Story Thieves, book one)
By James Riley
Expected publication January 20, 2015 by Aladdin

Owen's life is pretty unremarkable, though he does get to spend a lot of time at the library with his mom. His favorite books are the Kiel Gnomenfoot series and it's about to end. But everything changes for Owen when he spies his classmate Bethany climbing out of a book. Soon, he learns that her father was a fictional character, so she can climb into the pages of any book. Owen longs to be a hero, so he convinces her to visit one of the Kiel books. Unfortunately, things go horribly wrong and soon, both their lives are in danger.

This is the first book by Riley that I've read. His previous series is extremely popular at my library, so when I spotted the digital galley of his new series available, I figured I'd give it a shot and see what the fuss was about.

It's not difficult to see why Riley's writing appeals to kids. It's fast-paced and action-packed while also being concise and to the point. The characters are realistic, everyday kids - I could imagine them being classmates of mine when I was younger. The story is interesting and full of twists and turns. It's also funny and clever, making fun of tropes (which kids might recognize) and full of literary references. It's also thought-provoking, as the main characters begin to question what the difference is between reality and fiction.

Like I said, the writing here is very kid-friendly. It reminded me of Rick Riordan except not as tiresome (I'm a bit worn out on Riordan at the moment). It grabs you from sentence one and compels you to keep turning the pages as swiftly as you can. The narrative switches back and forth between Bethany and Owen who, during the course of their hijinks, get separated and embark on distinct crazy adventures. It works really well and never feels like "meanwhile, over here in this other plot line..." - the switching back and forth seems natural. As much as I can be a fan of luscious, elaborate prose, there is also something to be said for concise, clear prose that gets the story across. Riley manages to keep his writing crisp and clean without being boring.

The characters are delightful - like I said, they're very realistic (despite Bethany being half-fictional, or however she'd be defined). I related much more to Bethany - she has this awesome power, but it's also overwhelming because she has no one to help her understand how best to use it. So, she's figured out her own set of rules and is very careful to follow them. Of course, Owen comes along and brazenly ignores her rules. I completely understood Bethany's frustration and anxiety over Owen's actions. I liked that both of the characters needed a little bit of the other's sensibilities in order to complete their journeys.

The ending is perfect and sets up a sequel quite nicely. I'll definitely be looking forward to it - this was a fun, quick, and exciting read. Riley's fans won't be disappointed!

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Fall Program Recap: American Girl Club

Right at the end of last summer, my library did a bit of job restructuring. What it means is that I'm no longer responsible for planning and executing as many programs and my collection development duties have increased significantly. So, there might not be as many program recaps on the blog as there have been. I haven't stopped programming entirely, but I have decreased my efforts.

One of the programs that continues to be successful is our bimonthly American Girl Club. It's not a huge amount of work and I team with a coworker for it, so I'll be continuing this program indefinitely. We held two sessions in the fall. Here is what we did at each!

For our season kick-off, we focused on 2014's Girl of the Year, Isabelle. She is a creative girl who attends a prestigious arts school. We are lucky to have a real ballerina as one of our teen volunteers, so we focused our program on Isabelle's dancing. Our ballerina taught them the basic positions and a few basic exercises, which they really enjoyed. Then we made tutus for their dolls and watched videos of the brilliant Misty Copeland. I think our attendees actually enjoyed every part of this program and it was incredibly easy. Thanks to our lovely ballerina!

The second fall American Girl Club taught the girls about Kit and the Great Depression (they're always so cheerful, aren't they?). We listened to Little Orphan Annie (just like Kit would have), ate oatmeal raisin cookies (something simple and wholesome), and make clothespin dolls. We also had the girls bring in canned goods to donate to the local food pantry. Our attendance was a little bit lower than usual for this one, though Kit was one of the most requested girls. I'm not sure if we didn't have enough planned in our presentation, but the girls seemed to finish their crafts quickly this time around. We ended up watching some of the film adaptation of Annie to fill time.

We had a bit of a strange fall at the library - most of our program numbers were way down and even our circulation seemed down. But this program is the most consistently attended, so we'll be continuing with it the rest of the school year and probably next as well.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Picture Book Saturday

Sleepover with Beatrice and Bear
By Monica Carnesi
Published 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books
Beatrice and Bear meet in spring and become fast friends. But what happens in winter when Bear needs to hibernate? How can the friends share the season? They certainly try and it's adorable seeing how much they want to spend the time together. It's a very sweet story of friendship that would be great for the storytime crowd. The pictures are just as charming as the story - very expressive and sweet. A new favorite!

By Arree Chung
Published 2014 by Henry Holt and Co.
Ninjas are very popular right now - so much so that I even had a ninja-themed storytime this fall. This is a fun book, showcasing a ninja on a mission. There may be danger, but a ninja is always prepared. I like the arrival of a new little ninja at the end of the book and the simplicity of the text - one or two words per page. A good choice for young ninja fans, though it's not my personal favorite of the new crop of ninja stories. The illustrations are cartoon-y, which will appeal to kids, but the style is not one I love.

The Very Cranky Bear
By Nick Bland
Published 2014 by Orchard Books
This is an adorable story with illustrations that really pop. Three friends seek shelter from the rain in a cave, only to discover the cave is occupied. How can they make this bear less cranky? Hijinks ensue, sure to delight a young audience. Of course, the animal left out in the cold is the one with the successful idea. It's a lot of fun, energetic and lively. I really enjoyed this one and look forward to sharing it with kids.

Little Green Peas
By Keith Baker
Published 2014 by Beach Lane Books
The energetic peas are back - this time, to teach about colors! I think the peas are absolutely adorable and I love the illustrations - there are lots of details to examine and discover. But, for me, this concept didn't work quite as well as the first book. It is great for sharing but the colors are sometimes confusing, not highlighted properly and I find it strange that brown was not included (it's a very important color!). It's definitely fun and I think kids will like it, but I might just be over the peas.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Review: Finally

Finally (Willows Falls, book two)
By Wendy Mass, read by Kathleen McInerney
Published 2011 by Scholastic Audio

Rory is finally turning twelve. She's been waiting for ages for this day to arrive and she is prepared. She's been carefully keeping a list of all the things she'll finally be allowed to do once she turns twelve. But a strange encounter with an old woman leaves Rory a bit shaken and she soon discovers that all the things she's been waiting for might not be as awesome as she thought.

The first Willow Falls book, 11 Birthdays, was one of the titles we read back when I was running my tween book club. I found it a very enjoyable read - fun and mysterious with just a hint of magic - and I'd been meaning to read the sequels ever since. I finally downloaded the audio version and listened.

I didn't like this one as much as the first. I still found it quite charming - it's hard not to like Rory and her family - but it was missing a little something. I found the story a bit more disjointed than Amanda and Leo's story - the whole bit about a movie being filmed at their school actually seemed unnecessary and, at times, a bit intrusive to the real story of Rory and her list. It also seemed to take a very long time for the ominous warning in the first chapter to actually be explained in the story - in other words, it took a really long time for the bit of magic to come into play in this volume. And, when it finally did, ultimately, I didn't find it as satisfying as what had happened in book one.

I was surprised by how much of a role Amanda and Leo played in this one - prior to reading, my understanding was that it wasn't a tight series, just a group of companion books. So I expected the connection between book one and two to be much looser than it was. This is not a strength or a fault, just something unexpected that hit me.

I thought the audio was well done. McInerney has a believable 12-year-old girl voice and her Sawyer voice was also quite brilliant. She did a great job switching tones and inflections for the variety of other characters as well. I found this a very pleasant listen.

I'll be checking out book three (and did you know there's a book four also?) and continuing to recommend this series to kids looking for a fun and magical read.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: Hellhole

By Gina Damico
Published 2015 by HMH Books for Young Readers

Max cannot believe his bad luck. All he was trying to do was dig for dinosaur fossils. What he got instead was Burg - a devil. Yes, certified, from Hell, devil. But maybe it isn't so bad. Max makes a bargain - find Burg a home and in return, his mother will be cured of her chronic heart failure. Only, don't they say dealing with the devil is tricky business? Max is about to find out exactly how true that is.

I read Damico's debut a couple years ago and appreciated its snarky sense of humor and interesting mythology. I still haven't finished that series, but I spotted her newest title available for download and wanted to try to squeeze it into my reading.

Unfortunately, I feel pretty blah about this one. Once again, I enjoyed the humor - clearly Damico is great at capturing the hilarious and snarky experience of being a teenager. I didn't laugh as much as with her previous title - at times, it felt a bit over the top instead of actually funny. Also, I really liked the relationship between Max and his mom. I hope to someday be a mom that my kids think is cool, one they would choose to spend their Friday nights with, even when they're teenagers. Of course, I hope I don't have a fatal chronic illness, but I still liked their relationship. I also liked the relationship that developed between Max and Lore but I thought her character was unfortunately stereotypical.

Where this book really falls apart for me is its progression. It's overly long and not plotted out well. Max spends about 350 pages trying to uphold his end of the bargain. Then the last twenty pages are Burg's end of the deal and Max figuring out how to get rid of Burg for good and a glimpse at Max's happily ever after. After spending so long seeing Max struggle to balance being a good person with bargaining with a devil, the end was a complete let-down. It almost felt like Damico just decided to be done with the book and wrapped everything up as fast as she could. Not impressive at all.

Overall, definitely not as good as Damico's debut; a disappointment.

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest
By Holly Black
Expected publication January 13, 2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

For her whole life, Hazel has visited the horned boy in the center of the forest. He sleeps in a glass coffin and yes, he's real. Hazel and her brother, Ben, used to make up stories about him and Hazel believed that he was part of her destiny. But now the horned boy is missing and Hazel has received mysterious messages. Is it because of the deal she made with the Alderking years ago? Or is it something else?

I've had an interesting relationship with Holly Black's books. I really did not enjoy the first one I read (Valiant, one of her earlier Faerie novels), but I loved her Curseworkers trilogy. I felt pretty ambivalent about her foray into middle-grade literature last year, but I enjoyed her take on a vampire novel. So, when I spotted her newest title available for request, I figured why not give it a try.

Despite having not enjoyed the previous title I read that involved Fae and despite the fact that I feel pretty meh about faeries in general, I was prepared to enjoy this one. I thought the premise was really interesting. It hearkens back to fairy tales and what it might be like if a fairy tale came to pass in our modern world. I was also intrigued by the exploration of a sibling relationship - I continue to find myself drawn to books in which the sibling relationship is integral to the story.

When I started this book, I was on board. I thought Hazel was a bit manic pixie dream girl, but I liked that her deepest desire was to be a knight and kill faeries. I liked Ben a bit more, though I was a little put off when the narrative abruptly switched character focus. I assumed we were going to get just Hazel's story and the random chapters that focused on other characters didn't make a whole lot of sense to me (there was no pattern to it).

More than the characters, though, I was initially held captive by the town of Fairfold and the magic that surrounded it. I loved hearing the story of Jack and the theories surrounding the horned boy. I loved hearing about Hazel and Ben's gruesome adventures hunting faeries as children. I thought Black did a great job creating the world of Fairfold.

What's strange for me is that my interest began to wane when the action started to amp up. When the glass coffin is found shattered and the horned boy missing, I wanted to find out his story. But, beginning with the scene in the high school (when Sorrow starts to wreak havoc), I just felt my interest lessening. Right when I should have been sad to put the book down, I actually didn't care that much whenever I had to stop reading. Something about the second part of the book just didn't grab me. I also did not love the relationship between Ben and his suitor - it felt a bit too convenient for me. I appreciated having a gay character and I think Ben is the more interesting of the siblings but I thought his relationship was a bit too insta-love.

Overall, I enjoyed the setting and characters here but was less impressed with the plot and romance.

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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Picture Book Saturday

I Love You Night and Day
By Smriti Prasadam-Halls, illustrated by Alison Brown
Published 2014 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
This is a nice general picture book about love - the relationship between the bear and the bunny is never defined, so it makes for a good overall depiction of love. It's also nice because it shows that love lasts even during times when someone is not being their best. The illustrations are soft and lovely - though it's not a bedtime story, it feels like a good one to share at bed time. The sentiment is nothing new but, for me, it never gets old.

Ninja Red Riding Hood
By Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat
Published 2014 by Putnam Juvenile
I think I like this one even more than the first. In this book, the Wolf is humiliated from his encounter with the three pigs, so he heads off to ninja school for himself. He trains and earns his belt. Finally, his training complete, he heads out and encounters Red Riding Hood. Unfortunately, she's also trained at the dojo and is a worthy opponent. Will the Wolf ever get his tasty meal? These stories are fun and, as always, I love Santat's illustrations. This was a hit at my school outreach visits with second-graders. Wondering if there are more ninja adventures to come!

Hooray for Hat!
By Brian Won
Published 2014 by HMH Books for Young Readers
A grumpy elephant is cheered by the arrival of a hat. Sharing his festive hat will cheer all his friends as well. This is a very simple story but one that will be great for younger readers. The hats are varied but equally eye-catching and the animals all have distinct personalities. It's a good book to illustrate how a small act of kindness can cheer both the giver and the receiver. It also shows how kindness can snowball, putting everyone in a better mood.The illustrations are bright and simple, keeping the focus on the animals. Very fun. 

Adventures with Barefoot Critters
By Teagan White
Published 2014 by Tundra Books
I loved this book! It's beautiful! The illustrations are exquisitely lovely, featuring charming woodland critters (and a triceratops). I loved that this book explored the alphabet with a story rather than just a couple words per page. It also moves through the seasons during the story, so that's a bonus. I just found this completely charming and want to share it with everyone!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: Heap House

Heap House (Iremonger Trilogy, book one)
By Edward Carey
Published 2014 by Overlook Juvenile

Clod Iremonger is about to become a man. He is nearly sixteen, about to be betrothed to his cousin Pinalippy, when things go awry. He meets Lucy Pennant, a new servant girl in his family's estate. And with Lucy, Clod begins to uncover the secrets of the Iremongers and Heap House.

This ARC showed up at my library a couple months ago and I set it aside as one I'd like to read. I started seeing it on a few blogs, generally being praised extensively. So, I finally set out to read it in December and finished it up just before the end of the year.

I wanted to like this book. Seeing positive reviews of it about the web propelled me to pick it up sooner rather than later. It sounded strange and intriguing, different from the usual middle-grade fare. Well, that's all a bit of an understatement. This is one of the strangest books I've read in recent history and I'm not so sure it's a good thing.

The story starts with little introduction, and it's a very odd world that readers are thrown into. Clod's family is very unusual, which you can tell from their names alone. They live in a crumbling estate and most of them never leave. They all possess a birth object, something assigned to them that they must always carry with them. It seems that they would not function without a litany of servants  - there are servants that bathe them, cut their hair and nails, etc. It's all very strange. Clod is exceptional even among the Iremongers - he can hear the birth objects calling to him. They only ever say one thing - a name, which Clod assumes is the object's name.

With Clod's unusual power, it's easy to tell that something is not quite right about the Iremonger family and their birth objects. It's not clear exactly what that is until quite far in the book - and the reveal is done nicely. Unfortunately, the whole thing is just flat-out bizarre - too bizarre for me. It's also morbid and uncomfortable as you realize what exactly is going on in Heap House. The story mostly alternates narratives between Clod and Lucy, which is effective in showing multiple sides of the story, though some other narratives are thrown in (which are all very strange as well).

The strangeness of the story, and being dropped into it with little explanation, and the bits that I felt were underdeveloped (the larger setting, Lucy's life before coming to Heap House, much of the backstory in general) all combined to make this book just not work for me. Additionally, I have a hard time imagining the child who'd be interested in this one. Certainly, there is a market for strange middle-grade lit, but this might be too far afield and too British to work here. The ending is also not my favorite and I'm not sure where the rest of the series is going to go. I haven't yet decided if I'll check out book two.

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

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review: The Port Chicago 50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
By Steve Sheinkin
Published 2014 by Roaring Brook Press

A huge explosion at the Port Chicago Navy base during World War II set the scene for an epic trial over civil rights. 50 African-American were charged with mutiny after refusing to return to their job of loading ammunition. The penalty for mutiny was execution.

Well, awards season for youth literature is under way and, despite my promises to myself, I have a hard time not getting caught up in it. From the moment the Excellence in Non-Fiction and Morris Award shortlists were announced, I've had my eye on tracking down and reading the titles - of which I'd read none! Thinking about all the other books I've got on my plate and my resolution to try to clear out the books I own, I'm going to try - really, really try - to not read all the books on the shortlists. I started with this one, though.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bomb, Sheinkin's multiple award-winning earlier title, though it also scared the crap out of my for the future of our world. I'd been hearing great things about his latest work of non-fiction for young people all year, so I wasn't surprised to see it make the shortlist and I looked forward to reading it for myself. Upon finishing, I'm struggling a bit with my feelings toward it.

The story is an important one - one I knew nothing about prior to embarking on the reading experience. It's absolutely mind-blowing to read about the struggle for civil rights, particularly when I think about how far we still have to go for true equality. The Navy's stance throughout this book was just appalling, yet unfortunately, not terribly surprising. I was sad to learn that the Navy is still not interested in reopening the case of the Port Chicago 50, even though all of them are now deceased.

But, I just didn't engage with this story as much as I did with Bomb. I think some of this can be attributed to the disjointed way in which I read this book, picking it up here and there around the house, without any true longing to be reading it. Additionally, and maybe this is also just me, I was disappointed to get to that final chapter and discover that all of the Port Chicago 50 were deceased, meaning that Sheinkin had never actually interacted with them himself. I suppose this must be true of the players in Bomb as well, but I felt it more jarring with this title for some reason.

I still think there's no denying that this is an excellent work of non-fiction for youth and one that I would love to see incorporated into curriculum reading. It just didn't grab me as I hoped it would.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Release Day Review: All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places
By Jennifer Niven
Expected publication January 6, 2015 by Knopf

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet unexpectedly in the bell tower of their school. Finch is thinking about ending it all but stops when he talks Violet off the tower. Seeing something in her, he chooses her as a partner for a school project, determined to get to know her better. Violet, initially resistant to Finch's aggressive friendship, begins to see something special. But circumstances beyond their control will interfere and neither will come out of this unharmed.

First, let's pretend this book is not billed as The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park because the similarities between the three are rather few. This is obviously an advertising strategy. But, I was intrigued by this book as I've read a couple of Niven's adult books and enjoyed them, though this one is a significant departure from what I've read (her adult novels are historical fiction). I was also interested in reading a new book focusing on mental illness in young adults and Violet's grief over the death of her sister held appeal for me as well (as terrible as that sounds).

I'm a bit disappointed in this one overall, though there are several things I liked about it. I liked the dual narration - I think Niven does a good job of making Finch and Violet's voices distinctive enough to make it easy to tell them apart while reading. As I mentioned, Violet's grief over her sister's death was appealing to me - I'm always looking for new portrayals of sibling loss in books for young people. While I think Niven handled Violet's grief well, it's not the best example of this kind of loss I've seen and I was left wanting an even deeper exploration of it. Finch and Violet's Wander Indiana school assignment was great and inspired me to get back to wandering myself (incidentally, something I did a lot of while living in Indiana). I think their wanderings captured a lot of the teenage experience quite well and I appreciated Niven highlighting how much we should appreciate the beautiful and quirky of our country.

The other significant aspect of this book I enjoyed goes into SPOILER territory, so look away if you want to remain unspoiled. I appreciated that, in order to tell the most honest story, Niven let Finch kill himself. It was evident that, despite the perfect days he was sharing with Violet, Finch was dealing with a mental illness that was consistently overwhelming him. And he was dealing with it alone, despite his regular counseling sessions. I think the story would have felt false if Violet's relationship with Finch had somehow saved him from his suicide, though that would, of course, have been the happier ending. I also appreciated that Niven highlighted an important aspect of mental illness - the reluctance to be diagnosed. Finch's downward spiral seems to accelerate from the moment that an actual illness - bipolar disorder - is mentioned to him. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness, it's often quite difficult for those suffering to want the diagnosis because it makes them feel less than. Finally, as mad as it made me in the context of the story, I thought Niven did a great job highlighting Finch's parents' denial that anything could be wrong with their son. It can be deceptively easy to write off mental illness as simply one's personality, and I though Niven was smart in bringing this into the story.

So what didn't I like about the book? The relationship that develops between Finch and Violet had some uncomfortable feelings for me. Finch gets a bit obsessive in his pursuit of Violet and we are supposed to see this as heroic and endearing - he did save her life after all. But, it's a bit inappropriate in places. As much as I appreciated the realistic sex scenes between the two, I wonder if the book wouldn't have worked just as well had the two remained friends only. The ending was also a bit rushed and, perhaps, a little too convenient in places and a little too upsetting in others.

Overall, though, this is a good book for its subject and one that will definitely find an audience with teen readers.

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

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Cybils are here!

In case you missed it, the shortlists for the Cybils were announced on January 1. You can check out the finalists in all the categories here. As I've mentioned before, I'm serving as a round 2 judge for the Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction category. If you check out that list of finalists, you'll know what my priority reads for the next month will be. What this means for the blog is that, though I've vowed to stay more current in terms of reviewing things immediately upon finishing them, I won't be posting reviews of any of the finalists until after our winner is announced - so look for those reviews in the second half of February. Good news for you - I've already read and reviewed two of the titles, Boys of Blur (which was actually the book I nominated in this category) and Nuts to You! Hit the links for my reviews of those books.

In other categories, I'm positively tickled that, in addition to my nomination in my own category, three of my other nominations made it to their respective shortlists: The Chicken Squad in Early Chapter Books, The Dumbest Idea Ever! in Graphic Novels for Early & Middle Grades, and I'll Give You the Sun in Young Adult Fiction. If you're looking for some ideas on how to parse out the great books published in 2014, the Cybils shortlists are not a bad place to start. As for me, I'll be busy devouring the finalists and deliberating with my fellow judges on what our winner will be! Look for the winner announcements on Valentine's Day!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Picture Book Saturday

Flight School
By Lita Judge
Published 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
I really like Judge's illustration style - it's eye-catching and realistic but fun as well. This is an engaging story about a penguin determined to fly, whether he is built for it or not. It's a great book to teach kids about finding ways to achieve your goals and persevering. I really liked that getting Penguin to fly became a bit of a common goal for the other birds involved. It's a sweet reminder that you don't always have to go for your goals alone. This will definitely be making an appearance in bird storytimes in the future!

Bad Bye, Good Bye
By Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean
Published 2014 by HMH Books for Young Readers
I've been hearing about this book for some time now - it's getting some buzz for the Caldecott Award. That was enough to capture my attention, but I've also enjoyed everything I've read by Underwood, so it seemed only natural for me to read this as well. It's not a very complicated story, showing the reactions and feelings one child has to moving. It's told rhythmically, which works surprisingly well here, and in pretty plain language. The illustrations are definitely unique, though it's not my favorite style. They certainly deserve your attention, though, and I can see why this book is being buzzed about. A good book to help kids deal with change.

Brimsby's Hats
By Andrew Prahin
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
You know, right from the cover, this seemed like my sort of book. A bit unusual and a bit stylish, but with a universal theme. Brimsby's life changes significantly when his best friend moves away and he begins to realize that he is a bit lonely. Can he find a way to cure his loneliness? Of course, he'll find a creative solution and make some friends as well. I thought this was a refreshing take on the friendship story, with very modern illustrations that will definitely appeal to today's children's sensibilities. A sweet story.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Review: Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon
By Gregory Maguire
Published 2014 by Candlewick Press

Elena lives in a poor Russian village, made poorer by her dead father, her sickly mother, and her absent brothers. When a train arrives in her village - on its way to see the Tsar - Elena could not have anticipated it would carry a girl her age as well. An extraordinary mix-up will change the lives of both girls - and perhaps even Russia.

So, like lots of people, I adored Maguire's Wicked. I've had every intention of reading his other books but, best laid plans and all. So, when this one popped up on NetGalley, I requested away. This one is being marketed for young adults and I've become more intrigued with Russian folklore in recent years.

I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed. I've seen this book receive several glowing reviews from professional journals, as well as discussion as a Printz or Newbery contender, but I just don't see it. What Maguire has done well are the characters - I adored them all, although I felt the narrator a bit jarring at times. But I completely loved spending time with Elena and Cat and Anton and Baba Yaga - in fact, Baba Yaga is one of my favorite recent characters. The plot is evocative of a traditional folk or fairy tale, but it felt disjointed and confusing at times. I don't want to tackle the audience issue, but this is a book that for me felt confused about what it wanted to be. I can see small populations of several audiences embracing this book, but I'm not sure who is would benefit best.

For me, the biggest problem is the pacing. It took me forever to finish this book, mainly because there were huge chunks of it that just weren't that interesting. It dragged tremendously for the first part of the book, setting up the plot (which, when you boil it down, is pretty simple) and building to the introduction of Baba Yaga. I expected a lot from this book and, unfortunately, it just didn't deliver for me. However, as always, your mileage may vary, and I can definitely see the reasons this book has garnered some rabid fans. I think I'll go revisit Wicked myself.

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

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Looking Ahead...

Another of my favorite posts of the year - a peek at what's to come!

Series Books:

Ensnared (Splintered, book three) by A.G. Howard: what can I say? I'm a sucker for Alice. (Expected publication: January 2015)

The Shadow Cabinet (Shades of London, book three) by Maureen Johnson: it's finally here! I love the mystery and spookiness of this series, as well as MJ's signature touch of humor. (Expected publication: February 2015)

The Black Reckoning (Books of Beginning, book three) by John Stephens: I loved the first two books in this fantasy series and am eager to see what the conclusion will bring. I'll probably listen to the audio version of this - the first two were narrated by Jim Dale! (Expected publication: March 2015)

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, book two) by Rachel Hartman: more loveliness from Hartman and more Seraphina? Can't wait! (Expected publication: March 2015)

Lair of Dreams (Diviners, book two) by Libba Bray: I mean, I've already waited so long, but please don't make me wait forever, Libba. (Expected publication: April? August? 2015) 

Heart of Betrayal (Remnant Chronicle, book two) by Mary E. Pearson: I wasn't overwhelmingly excited about book one, but I still want to know more about the world Pearson created, so I'll be looking for this one in the summer. (Expected publication: July 2015)

Untitled (Raven Cycle, book four) by Maggie Stiefvater: I have Blue Lily, Lily Blue sitting at home, waiting to be devoured, but I may put it off and devour books three and four back to back. (Expected publication: likely fall 2015)

The Rose Society (Young Elites, book two) by Marie Lu: while I didn't love the first book as much as I hoped, I'm still intrigued to see where book two will go, particularly after the ending of book one. (Expected publication: October 2015)

Standalones/New Series:

All Fall Down by Ally Carter: another series I'm looking to finish is Carter's Heist Society, which will prep me for kicking off a new series with her, this time full of conspiracy! (Expected publication: January 2015)

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard: this book is already one of the most talked-about 2015 titles, and I'm all for more fantasy with unusual worldbuilding, so bring it on! Lucky to have an ARC of this! (Expected publication: February 2015)

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein: her previous two novels have absolutely broken me, so I expect nothing less from her newest. This one is set in Ethiopia before World War II, definitely a setting and time that I've never read before. (Expected publication: March 2015)

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma: I've already heard some buzz about this one, so I'm definitely looking forward to it. A suspenseful and ghostly story billed as "Orange is the New Black Swan" - sounds amazing! (Expected publication: March 2015)

All the Rage by Courtney Summers: my maid of honor is actually reading this book right now, so I need to get on board with it. Billed as Speak for a new generation, I'm dying with anticipation for this one. (Expected publication: April 2015)

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio: I'm thrilled to see an increasing number of books that explore the gender spectrum and this book, featuring an intersex protagonist, definitely fits the bill. Hoping it's as great as I'm imagining. (Expected publication: April 2015)

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas: though I have Throne of Glass sitting on my shelves (you see why I need to read the books I own???), I haven't read it, but that doesn't stop me from anticipating her new series, said to be a combo of Beauty and the Beast and faeries. (Expected publication: May 2015)

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness: any year with a new Patrick Ness novel is a good year and this one, about the people in a story who aren't the hero, should be fascinating. (Expected publication: August 2015)

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell: AN ACTUAL SIMON SNOW NOVEL?!?! I am so flipping excited you guys! (Expected publication: October 2015)

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: I'm very much looking forward to finishing out the Grisha trilogy next year, but I also can't wait for the start of her new series, set in the same world and marketed as a cross between Ocean's 11 and A Game of Thrones. YES PLEASE! (Expected publication: October 2015)

The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan: apparently I'm not sick of Riordan's style yet. This series, focusing on Norse mythology, is sure to be a big hit. (Expected publication: October 2015)

This is a small list of what I'm looking forward to in 2015. What have I missed? What are your anticipated reads?

Additionally, it's Cybils season! Head on over to their website and check out the just-released shortlists - pay attention to the Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction list if you want to know what my next half dozen or so reads will be! I'm super-excited to see the other shortlists as well!