Wednesday, June 1, 2016

May Check-In

It's time again for this month's round-up, though this one will be a bit different. Here's what I read this month!

Early-chapter: 0

Middle-grade: 13

Teen: 5

Adult: 5

Picture books: 33

Library books: 47

Books owned: 9

Read Harder Challenge: 14/24

Non-fiction goal: 9/25

Series goal: 2/5

Short stories/Novellas: 15

Overall, not a bad month, but not a great one either. Still slowly making my way through things, but still needing to focus more on reading the stuff I own.

The reason this check-in is different is because it's likely my last. Over the last year or so, as I've dealt with rather large-size life issues (and not necessarily bad ones), I've struggled to maintain this blog on any kind of regular schedule. As time has gone on, I've felt less of a desire to work on it. A lot of the time, I don't feel I have enough to say about a book to warrant an entire post. Since this blog is 95% reviews, what, then, would be the point of it?

This is a long-winded way of saying to the dozen of you who read this regularly, thanks for reading and I hope you've enjoyed it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: The Unexpected Everything

The Unexpected Everything
By Morgan Matson
Published May 3, 2016 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

Andie's summer plans were set - she'd be off to a pre-med course, have a summer romance, and keep in touch with her friends. But then, her politician father is embroiled in a scandal and her recommendation for the pre-med session is withdrawn. Now, Andie finds herself sharing a house with her father for the first time in years and with no job during what is arguably the most important summer of her pre-college career. Is there any way this summer can be redeemed?

Though I've only read one of Matson's previous titles, I always want to read them. I really enjoyed my first experience reading her and I've looked forward to replicating it. When I spotted this one available for review, I snatched it up, eager to read a contemporary novel instead of yet another fantasy.

The good: Matson does romance well. This is a very sweet romance, but also a very realistic one. Andie's previous relationships have been extremely casual and she has no reason to suspect that this summer's will be any different. As a result, the hesitancy and tumult of emotions she feels when it does start to take a different path felt very genuine. Similarly, Matson does a great job with the rest of the relationships in the novel. The friendships between Andie and her three female friends really made me miss my own high school girlfriends. It's a very specific kind of love that young women share during their high school years and Matson does a great job capturing it. One caveat: I did have to do a significant amount of eye-rolling at how stunningly attractive Andie and all her friends are. Can't we just have some plain ladies once in a while?

The relationship between Andie and her father is also very realistically portrayed. While I've no idea what it might be like to be the daughter of a mostly absent politician, I do know what it's like to feel that your parents' choices have intruded on your ability to make choices of your own. I thought her confusion of feelings at the unexpected presence of her father in her life was also very believable and I enjoyed watching them trying to navigate each other.

Finally, I really appreciated that not everything turns out sunshine and roses in the end. While, for the most part, Andie gets her various happy endings, there is one storyline that isn't tied up in a nice little bow. That, once again, felt very realistic to me - high school is rough and not everything is going to turn out like you want it to. There is enough happiness for those invested in Andie's HEA, but I appreciated that there was still a bit of conflict as well.

The bad: this book is LONG. Over 500 pages. What's the last contemporary novel you read of that length? I can't name one, particularly not one for teens. With about 150 pages left, I started to wonder what else could possibly happen in this book. I think it could have done with some trimming and been just as fulfilling a story as it is.

Overall, a very enjoyable and sweet summer read. Recommended for romance fans. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: Illuminae

Illuminae (Illuminae Files, book one)
By Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Published 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Kady thought her biggest problem would be breaking up with Ezra. Then their planet was attacked. Now, the two are separated and dealing with a ship run by a possibly insane computer program, an outbreak of a deadly virus, and, of course, their complicated feelings for each other. Can they figure them out and survive?

I think by now everyone knows that I don't like space. Yes, I'm appreciative of the fact that I live in space and am thankful for our planet and gravity and all that business. But science fiction stories set in space are just not my jam. That being said, there have been a handful I've enjoyed, including Kaufman's previously co-authored series. Couple that with a beyond glowing recommendation from my friend Amy (a space story fiend, but I digress) and my husband's need for a new book and I found myself reading this one.

For the most part, I enjoyed this. There is a lot happening here, but it's all fascinating and never gets muddled up. It's told in the epistolary format which, like novels in verse, is my kryptonite - I can hardly resist. My only problem with the way this is told is that, as this is a science fiction book, it's taking place in a world completely foreign to the one I live in. As such, it's a bit difficult to get oriented in this world through the interviews, schematics, and chat logs that comprise the story. That being said, though, I think you get enough of a sense of the world to know that there are some not great things happening and our main characters are unfortunately caught in the middle of them.

I thought both stories - that of the malfunctioning computer system and the virus that is turning people murderous - were really interesting and believable. Both were given equally page time and both had potentially disastrous consequences if left unchallenged. My husband kept asking me what I thought of the book and my only response was (and continues to be) "This is why we shouldn't be messing with artificial intelligence."

While overall I enjoyed the book, some parts of it were less successful for me. More specifically, I didn't buy into the romance AT ALL, which is actually pretty important because it is the driving force for a lot of the choices Kady makes. Perhaps it's because the romance has already happened and ended before the book even begins, or perhaps it's also a victim of the format in which the story is told. For whatever reason, I didn't believe it. Additionally, the ending was way too pat for me. With all the craziness happening throughout the 500+ pages of this novel, it seemed extremely unlikely that the book would end the way it did.

I'll be interested in seeing where the story goes from here, particularly as it seems book two will focus on a new set of characters. Definitely recommend this one to your science fiction and action fans.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Review: Ask Me How I Got Here

Ask Me How I Got Here
By Christine Heppermann
Published May 3, 2016 by Greenwillow Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Addie's pretty much had her life figured out. But one careless night with her boyfriend finds her pregnant. Now, nothing will be quite the same.

I was pretty excited to see this one available for review pre-publication. I loved Poisoned Apples and had already started hearing good things about this one. I'm an avowed lover of novels in verse, so I fully expected to be over the moon for this one, too.

While I enjoyed this, I didn't love it like I had imagined I would. I appreciate the hell out of the story. Addie gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. Her parents support her, as does her boyfriend. But Addie cannot deny that something inside her has changed, so she quits cross-country running and breaks up with her boyfriend. She doesn't think her abortion is the end of her life or means she's broken, or any of the other typical narratives associated with the topic. But it has changed her and she seeks to uncover just what that change really means.

One of the changes Addie is exploring has to do with her friendship with a former teammate, one who is away at college now. Addie begins to wonder if that friendship might actually be something else, something she has never acknowledged until now. Unfortunately, this is where the book fell down for me. I am glad that Addie is questioning her identity and trying to decide what feels right for her, but I felt that this part of the story was not as well-developed as it deserved to be. Additionally, the ending of the book felt extremely abrupt - I was enjoying the story and wanted it to keep going, expanding on the topics that were just emerging, and then it ended. I guess it's good to leave your readers wanting more?

Overall, another great read from Heppermann. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Review: Down with the Shine

Down with the Shine
By Kate Karyus Quinn
Published April 26, 2016 by HarperTeen
Reviewed from e-ARC

Lennie has had a rough life and has never really looked forward to inheriting her family's moonshine tradition. In the aftermath of her best friend's murder, she decides she needs to live life more fully, so she sneaks some of that moonshine to a party. She shares it with everyone she sees, making a traditional toast each time. But when she wakes the next morning, she learns that the family legacy is much more than just making the moonshine - and she finds herself wishing she hadn't made so many toasts the night before.

I read Quinn's previous novel, Don't You Forget About Me and felt a bit conflicted about it. When I spotted her latest available in galley form, I figured I'd give her another shot. It sounded like my kind of weird.

I wasn't wrong - I very much enjoyed this one. It is a strange journey, but also quite amusing and, at times, heartfelt. It was a very quick read and had me laughing at loud in parts. The focus is definitely on the plot and less on the characters, which I think is part of what makes this a quick read. It is dark and funny - two of my favorite things - so really, it would have been pretty hard for me to not enjoy this one. That being said, I can see that this has a very specific appeal - in fact, I can think of several people who, despite loving YA, humor, or darker stories would not enjoy this one. That being said, I tend to think that teens really go in for black comedy, so I hope it finds its audience. As a bonus, I thought the ending was very clever and really worked with the book as a whole. I definitely recommend this one if you like your funny on the dark side.

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: Their Fractured Light

Their Fractured Light (Starbound, book three)
By Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Published 2015 by Disney-Hyperion

Potential spoilers ahead. Read my reviews of books one and two.

Gideon is a pretty fearless hacker. Sofia is a con artist with a grudge. When these two criminals are forced to work together, they discover something in common - they both want to take down LaRoux Industries. But this is easier said than done - LaRoux is one of the most powerful forces in the galaxy. They'll have to team up with some old allies if they ever hope to succeed.

After having read and enjoyed books one and two and wanting to actually finish up some series that I've started and then forgotten about, I happily checked out this third and final book. Unfortunately, it took me quite some time to finish - I got about halfway through before having to return it to the library. But, I've finally finished, so I suppose I should share some thoughts.

Unfortunately and unexpectedly, I didn't love this one as much as the previous two. While I struggled with aspects of the romance in book one, I very thoroughly enjoyed book two and was anxiously awaiting this title. I think I had a much more difficult time with the new main characters and their story in this volume - it just didn't grab me the same way the previous characters and plots had. I spent most of the first part of the book waiting to get to the part where this one would tie into the other two and the whole bigger conspiracy plot would come into play. Then, when that finally did happen, I just didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I didn't love the big gigantic twist the plot takes and the ending - honestly, it's been a couple weeks since I finished this and I can't really remember what happened.

Overall, I found this a pretty disappointing end to a series I had unexpectedly enjoyed. After the strength of book two, this was especially a let-down.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review: Wolf Hollow

Wolf Hollow
By Lauren Wolk
Published May 3, 2016 by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

Annabelle lives a quiet life until the day Betty walks into her life. Betty is a bully, and has chosen Annabelle as the object of her torment. While it's not pleasant, Annabelle thinks she can manage. But then, Betty sets her sights on Toby, a reclusive and odd veteran who has always been kind to Annabelle. As the situation quickly escalates, Annabelle learns to find her voice.

Nearly all of the reviews I've seen for this one include nothing but praise. For better or worse, this review is not that. Objectively, I can see that this is a finely written coming of age tale. But, as someone reading this book for pleasure, I just didn't like it. My first problem with this is that it's narrated by an older Annabelle telling the story of this pivotal moment in her life. While I think this can be a powerful narrative device, I always find it an odd choice in books marketed to a younger audience. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like this puts a distance between the reader and the narrator and makes a book that might already be a tough sell - historical fiction, bordering on didactic plot, slowly paced - an even more difficult one.

As I said, it's a well-written piece of literature, but sometimes I wonder also at the choice of a prose-heavy story in a book for young readers. In my experience as a youth librarian, it is a small portion of a young audience that is going to value a lushly written story over one that is action-packed.

Perhaps my biggest personal stumbling block comes simply because of my stage in life. Of course, I remember what it's like to be a kid and be afraid of speaking up on the side of right; certainly, I was an extremely shy kid and hated having to speak to authority figures. However, I couldn't help but think that if Annabelle had only told her parents when Betty's bullying first began, the subsequent tragedies might have been avoided. From what we're given in the text, Annabelle has a very close relationship with her parents, so her hesitancy at speaking to them from the onset struck me as a bit odd. Once again, this may have more to do with my reading this as an adult, but it was something that bothered me throughout the entire reading.

Overall, I didn't enjoy this one, and will have a hard time selling it to my readers. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Netgalley.

Monday, May 2, 2016

April Check-In

Time to see what I've read this month!

Early-chapter: 0

Middle-grade: 5

Teen: 6

Adult: 3

Picture books: 35

Library books: 40

Books owned: 9

Read Harder Challenge: 11/24

Non-fiction goal: 8/25

Series goal: 2/5

Short stories/Novellas: 16

Overall, a pretty middle of the road month for me. I'm focusing my audiobook choices on finishing up the Read Harder challenge right now, mostly because I really want to try to read more of the books in the house. I've decided there's no way I'm moving them all again, so I either read them while I have them or I end up getting rid of them unread. I'm aiming for the former, but we'll see how it goes. I feel like my series goal might fall by the wayside here, but we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: The Legend of Sam Miracle

The Legend of Sam Miracle (Outlaws of Time, book one)
By N.D. Wilson
Published April 19, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Sam Miracle has strange dreams. Sometimes, they even feel real. Soon, Sam will discover that these dreams are more than that - they're memories of the lives he's lived in pursuit of destroying someone so evil, he's been fighting him for hundreds of years. But, this life, this time, may be his last chance. With help from a new friend, Sam Miracle is going to try to finally put an end to this battle once and for all.

You know, I don't even really know what I want to say about this book. My first experience with N.D. Wilson was Dragon's Tooth, book one in another series. I went on to read book two (but still haven't gotten to book three), as well as a stand-alone title of his. I very much enjoyed them all, so I fully expected that I'd enjoy his newest title.

Unfortunately, this one didn't work for me. Much like the Ashtown Burials series, there is a lot happening in this world that Wilson has created. Maybe too much for me. I actually frequently found myself skimming because the explanations of how this world worked were not holding my interest. Additionally, I did not connect with Sam as a character at all; I found myself with little to no investment in whether or not he survived this next battle. Likely, my inability to engage with Sam is because Sam himself doesn't fully know or understand who he is. It's an interesting idea to explore, but it felt alienating to read about someone who is so ambiguously characterized.

On a similar note, I found the secondary characters to be wholly disappointing, if not downright troubling. The female characters in this book exist only to help the development of Sam: his sister has been repeatedly tortured and killed, driving Sam's motivation for seeking vengeance. Glory, who initially begins as a pretty independent female character, soon devolves into being Sam's keeper, monitoring his safety and well-being through their adventures. There are several Native American characters as well, but none of them seem to rise above the "magical Indian" stereotype. I'd be interested in seeing other people's reactions to these characters - most of the Goodreads reviews I've seen are overwhelmingly positive, and a quick search of Deb Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature site doesn't seem to turn up a review for this title yet.

Overall, I'm sadly disappointed in this one and unsure if I'll read book two. If others have a different opinion, feel free to let me know in the comments. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review: Somewhere Among

Somewhere Among
By Annie Donweth-Chikamatsu
Expected publication April 26, 2016 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dhouly Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Ema has never felt like she belonged. With a Japanese father and an American mother, she has been between two worlds. This summer, she and her mother will be staying in Japan with her grandparents - her mother is having a baby and the pregnancy has not been easy. Things only get more difficult when the tragedy of September 11th strikes. Will Ema and her family find a way to cope?

I'll read pretty much anything told in verse, so the pitch for this one caught my eye when I saw the galley available for download. I haven't read much fiction dealing with 9/11, but, as the 15th anniversary approaches, I've seen more and more middle grade books dealing with the topic. This one had the interesting perspective of a girl in a foreign country trying to understand her feelings (and the feelings of those around her) about the attacks. The details of life in Japan are interesting and will likely be new information to young readers. The book begins several months before the attacks take place, so there is some time of relative normalcy that will give readers insight into Ema and her family's lives. I thought Ema's inner struggles were realistically portrayed - her complicated feelings about her grandmother, her concern over her mother, her excitement over the new baby. It all felt very authentic.

However, the first part of this book moves very slowly. As I said, it begins several months prior to the attacks, so some readers might not be able to drag themselves through the start to get to that point. Additionally, this book seems to be one tragedy after another. I feel a bit how I felt while reading Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper - great book, with wonderful characters and a necessary perspective but did that last tragedy really add anything other than an overwhelming sense of hopelessness? Sad books seem to be more and more prevalent in middle grade fiction. I don't think this is a bad thing - fiction can often give us insight on how to process situations that make us feel complex emotions. But sometimes, when a book is one tragedy after another, it can feel a bit much for me, as an adult reader. Maybe I shouldn't be too surprised that kids love tragedy fiction - the "sad dog" books never sit on my shelves for very long.

Overall, this is a unique perspective on the attacks of September 11th, but might work best for readers willing to persevere through the first half. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Review: Red

Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood
By Liesl Shurtliff
Published April 12, 2016 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

Red's granny is the most powerful witch she knows, but Red has sworn off magic herself. When Granny falls ill and magic seems to be her only hope, Red must make the difficult decision to search for a magical cure - after all, she can't lose her granny. Will Red find the way to help?

Having previously read and enjoyed Shurtliff's other fairy tale retellings, I was pleased to see her tackle Red's story in more depth. Red was one of my favorite characters from the earlier titles, so I fully expected to enjoy her solo journey even more.

As with my reading of Rump, this one began to feel a bit repetitive and draggy - essentially, Red does the same thing three times, with slight variations. Really, that's a very traditional fairy tale component, but, for some reason, I found it tiresome here. After so looking forward to hearing more about Red's story, I was disappointed to realize that my favorite thing about this book was a new character (her name is Goldie - perhaps she's familiar to you?). Beyond the bits where Red explains why she doesn't practice magic, I felt her character was underdeveloped - most of the book is about her journey and is really just a telling of what she undergoes. It didn't often delve deeper as I would have liked. In fact, most of the secondary characters were more intriguing to me than Red - maybe Shurtliff does that on purpose to guarantee an audience for the next one? Mostly, I'm kidding, but with appearances by Goldie, the Huntsman, and Beauty and the Beast, it wouldn't surprise me.

This is still quite a fun and amusing read and the way Red and Goldie play off each other is quite a joy to read. i also liked Red's connection with the wolf and those appearances by other characters were, as I said, quite intriguing. I just expected to love this more than I did.

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

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary
By Laura Shovan
Published April 12, 2016 by Wendy Lamb Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Ms. Hill's class has just learned that their school will be torn down in order to build a grocery store. Not willing to sit idly by while the adults decide what's best, they take to their poetry journals and eventually find a way to make their voices heard.

Well, I am apparently the only person on Goodreads who was not completely enamored by this book. I wanted to like it but, really, I feel ambivalent. Maybe the only saving thought is that my ambivalence has more to do with reading this in ARC form rather than reading the final version. I can't say for certain, though.

As I said, I really wanted, and expected, to like this book. Novels in verse are my jam - no joke, I'll read about pretty much anything if you tell it to me in verse form. Additionally, I really liked the idea of hearing from so many different voices and seeing them develop over the course of a year. But here is where I think the ARC format steered me wrong - almost none of the formatting was correct. Where I expected poetry, I got big chunks of text. And this really messed with my reading of the book. I presume - but, again, don't know for certain since I haven't seen a finished copy of the book - that the formatting is slightly altered for each character; that is, each character is writing a different form of poetry. If the formatting had been correct in my ARC, I might have had an easier time keeping the characters straight (there are 18 of them, after all). Additionally, I felt the ending to be extremely anti-climactic.

What I liked about the book: the number of different voices allowed Shovan to explore a greater variety of characters and, when I could keep them straight, I liked reading about their differences. Also, I appreciated Shovan acknowledging poverty and economic differences, though I would have liked an even more in-depth exploration of food deserts and the disparities surrounding them.

Overall, an interesting read, but one that will not be particularly memorable for me. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: The Last Monster

The Last Monster
By Ginger Garrett
Published April 12, 2016 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

Sofia has never been good at fitting in, even before she lost her leg to cancer. Now, just when she's trying to figure out what her new normal life will look like, a mysterious book with ties to Aristotle shows up in her life. Soon, she finds herself seeing monsters everyone - and she means that literally.

Well, I must confess: I was drawn to this book mostly because of the adorable monster on its cover. I was intrigued by a young protagonist with cancer as well, readjusting to life in middle school (which, if I recall correctly, is hard enough without being sick).

This book was not at all what I expected. I guess I should have paid more attention to the giant wolf on the cover than the adorable white monster - the wolf much more clearly suggests the tone of this book. It is not a sweet tale filled with misunderstood monsters for which Sofia now finds herself responsible. In most instances, the monsters would just as soon devour her as ask for her help. Of course, a young character dealing with the lingering effects of cancer and its treatment is going to be dealing with some heavy stuff - Sofia certainly is. But, in addition to dealing with how cancer has marked her as different, Sofia is navigating relationships that have been permanently altered by her illness, first and foremost among them her relationship with her mother. Most of this is handled quite well, but Sofia's relationships with her peers felt off to me. On the one hand, I could understand Sofia's point of view, but on the other, I wanted to shake her for being so presumptuous and stubborn. Perhaps readers will learn the importance of talking about your feelings and your perceptions of other's feelings instead of just assuming to know them.

A few other things I didn't really enjoy: the monsters actually felt mostly superfluous; they only existed as a catalyst for Sofia to work through her emotions and redefine her relationships. I honestly can't even remember what happened with the monsters in the end and I just finished the book last week. The monsters were not the point of the story. Additionally, I did not love the boy that Sofia develops a friendship with. In my opinion, he didn't treat her very well and actually seemed mostly to be using her for his own needs. I particularly did not enjoy the times he felt obliged to speak on her behalf.

Overall, a let-down for me. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review: The Land of 10,000 Madonnas

The Land of 10,000 Madonnas
By Kate Hattemer
Expected publication April 19, 2016 by Knopf
Reviewed from e-ARC

Jesse knew he wouldn't live forever, even if he lived in a house full of Madonnas - his heart condition assured a tragically young end. But, before he went, he made sure to arrange a mysterious trip to Europe for his cousins and friends - maybe a quest that he couldn't fulfill, maybe just a way to help them through their grief. They won't know until they get there.

I can certainly understand fixations and collections - I'm 99% sure I legitimately have bibliomania (and the hundreds of unread books in my house would surely agree) and that's not my only focus of intense fascination. So, the idea of someone fixating on collecting images of the Madonna - that appealed to the collector in me, even more so because it didn't seem to be a collection grown out of spiritual or religious underpinnings. Additionally, I always appreciate a story that explores grief and how differently it can manifest from one person to another.

One of the things I loved most about this book is that the first character we meet is Jesse - Jesse, the boy who is dead by the time the actual plot of the novel is taking place. Jesse was as much a main character here as any of the other living characters and I really felt like I knew him. Starting the book with Jesse made it easy for me to understand why the other characters felt as they did for him. I liked that we spent time with each character and understood how their grief was impacting their lives - it was different for each of them, just as it is in real life. They also all had different relationships with Jesse when he was alive, so I think that's important, too. I liked seeing the relationships between the five of them develop as well - though I would have preferred if the two females were not quite so antagonistic towards each other. I really enjoyed some of the finer details of the book - Plagueslist, Ben's preference for postcards, the focus on Michelangelo, etc. - but other parts of the book were not explored quite to my liking - Matt (the character as a whole), Cal's heel pain.

My main problem with the book, though, is the trip itself. It felt almost unnecessary for them to actually go - most of what they accomplished seemed like it could have been done just as easily if they had simply all gathered together and discussed things. Since Hattemer had them actually on the trip in Europe, I also expected a more definite end to their quest - once Jesse (in the journal he left behind) acknowledges that the reason for the trip is not what he believed, I expected the other characters to have a more meaningful moment with Arnold.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book and think it will appeal to fans of contemporary realistic teen fiction. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review: Tell the Wind and Fire

Tell the Wind and Fire
By Sarah Rees Brennan
Published April 5, 2016 by Clarion Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Lucie was born in the Dark City but escaped with her father some years ago. Since then, she has been living in the Light, becoming a symbol of the Light Council's benevolence (and her relationship with its leader's nephew doesn't hurt). But the balance between Light and Dark has been on the verge for some time now; a revolution is brewing and both sides want to use Lucie. Is she strong enough to make her own decisions?

Perhaps I had unfairly high expectations for this book. After all, I've very much enjoyed the previous books by Brennan that I've read and I've also highly enjoyed the fantasy retellings of classic novels that have come out recently. This book, being a mix of the two (and based on my favorite Dickens' at that!), seemed made for me. But the first sentence of this paragraph probably tells you that this book was not quite all I hoped it would be.

This is not a bad book and the fact that I didn't love it does not mean I didn't enjoy it. In fact, it is the book I chose to begin while on my vacation and it made me wish I had more time to focus on reading it (but only a little - I was in Italy, after all!). It has the same kind of clever and determined heroine I've come to expect from Brennan - as well as a full cast of intriguing and engaging secondary characters. I thought the development of the magic systems and the worldbuiding was fascinating and I wanted to know more about it. I loved the twist toward the end of the book - completely believable and engrossing.

However, this book didn't have - pardon my terrible pun - the same magic for me as the other Brennan books I've enjoyed. I liked it well enough, but I never really got completely swept away in the story. Similarly, I didn't fall for these characters as much as her others - I like Lucie well enough, but Ethan was a bit flat for me (perhaps because most of what we know of him is told to us by the completely impartial Lucie) and Carwyn was interesting but the development of his relationship with Lucie was a bit too convenient for my liking. And, admittedly it's been a while since I've read A Tale of Two Cities, but the connection didn't feel as strong as other classic retellings have.

Overall, a good, but not great read. I'll still look forward to the next title Brennan releases. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: I Woke Up Dead at the Mall

I Woke Up Dead at the Mall
By Judy Sheehan
Published March 22, 2016 by Delacorte Press
Reviewed from e-ARC

To add insult to injury, not only has Sarah woken up dead at the Mall of America, but she's still wearing the horrible mango chiffon bridesmaid dress she died in. It only gets worse from there as she realizes that she was murdered, her killer is still out there, and her father may be in danger. Even though it's totally against the rules, can Sarah figure out a way to get justice and protect her dad?

Quite often, I choose books by their titles. Having been an avid library user for most of my life, the books I browsed tended to be spine out, making their titles the first impression I got of them. Any title that sounded interesting, I'd pull of the shelf and read the synopsis before making a final decision. The practice of choosing books by titles has stayed with me, so, when I needed something to read before heading off on my vacation, the quirkiness of this title struck me. As a bonus, it was a comparatively short read to the other ARCs I had downloaded, so it was the winner.

For a book narrated by a murdered teen, this is an extremely lighthearted read. Nothing ever really felt too perilous and I never doubted that things would work out for all the characters. There are some funny bits and the friendships that develop between Sarah and the teens she meets at the mall are quite charming (if a bit unbelievable). The romance is sweet enough and definitely fits with the overall feel of the book. The mystery is solved in an interesting way and what Sarah is able to do to help people back on Earth is unique, giving the story something a bit different from a typical teenage ghost story.

If you take the book at face value, then I think it's a perfectly fine read that many readers will enjoy. The problems come when you think a bit more carefully about it - the romance feels unrealistic, the picture of the afterlife painted is a mishmash of many things (but carefully avoiding any religion by name), and the fact that these kids were all murdered is a little too glossed over. The book is mostly pretty chaste, though there is one scene of intimacy that might push this out of the younger YA range.

Overall, this is a fun, if forgettable, read for teens looking for a lighthearted supernatural romance. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: A Drop of Night

A Drop of Night
By Stefan Bachmann
Published March 15, 2016 by Greenwillow Books
Review from e-ARC

Anouk has lucked into the opportunity of a lifetime - she's been selected to take part in the excavation of a hidden French palace with just a handful of other gifted teens. However, when they arrive, it becomes clear that nothing is what it seems. Is it possible that their lives are in danger?

Well, whatever I thought this book was going to be, it was something else. Glancing over other reviews when I started reading, I knew it was going to be a mix of many different genres and ideas, but I think I still underestimated exactly what I was getting into. There is so much stuff crammed into this book and, for me, it never really meshed all together. I'm generally a big fan of historical fantasy, but this also had elements of horror and the paranormal, plus action and mostly it just felt like a big old jumbled mess. I don't think the historical storyline was developed fully, and, because it had such a strong bearing on the present-day storyline, it made that weak as well.

I don't have to find characters likable to enjoy their stories, but Anouk was a very difficult character to care about. She behaves terribly to everyone and, yes, I understand that it's a defense mechanism because of how her parents treat her, but that didn't make her any easier to deal with. Additionally, none of the other characters are fleshed out at all, so I had a hard time getting invested in their survival throughout the ordeal.

Many parts of the story felt convenient and, at the same time, pointless. In fact, by the end, I'm not sure what the whole point of the story was. I can't give it away without spoiling things, but it seemed unlikely to me that this outcome would have occurred with this set of characters and no others.

Ultimately, I had high hopes for this but it did not live up to expectations. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, April 4, 2016

March Check-In

It's time to check up on what I read this month!

Early-chapter: 0

Middle-grade: 2

Teen: 3

Adult: 4

Picture books: 25

Library books: 29

Books owned: 5

Read Harder Challenge: 8/24

Non-fiction goal: 6/25

Series goal: 1/5

Short stories/Novellas: 11

As expected, I had a very slow month this month. For the first half, I was focused on adult titles in preparation for my trip. And, while on my vacation, I didn't read at all. I listened to about an hour of my audiobook and read maybe two chapters of the book I was reading, and that's it. I always imagine I'll have lots of time for reading, but I almost never end up reading while on vacation. Hopefully I'll get back into it in April!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Review: The Eye of Midnight

The Eye of Midnight
By Andrew Brumbach
Published March 8, 2016 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

William and Maxine are cousins sent to spend the summer with their grandfather. Only, he's nowhere to be found when they arrive. Instead, they find a mysterious symbol all over his house and a secret basement. This only marks the start of their adventures.

Well, every review on Goodreads of this is either four or five stars. I gave it only three. I am, apparently, the dissenting opinion on this title.

Don't get me wrong, this is an action-packed and exciting historical mystery for kids. It was by no means torturous to read and it moves along at a pretty quick pace, keeping you turning the pages. I can see a lot of kid appeal in the story - Maxine's desire to be taken seriously and perceived as older, William's stubborn and occasionally reckless sense of curiosity, a mysterious grandfather they barely know, cryptic symbols that hint at dark secrets, and lots of intrigue and adventure. In fact, this might be the kind of historical fiction that kids will pick up of their own accord (it's not a favorite genre at my library). It's also poised to be the first in a series, another big selling point to young readers.

So, with all that, why only three stars from me? Yes, I can see the appeal factors quite clearly and, yes, I love historical fiction. But, for me, it never really transcended into something unique. Additionally, a lot of the plot felt too convenient and the book suffers from the unfortunate trope of Middle Eastern villains. Will and Max do befriend a young Middle Eastern girl who continues with them on their quest and that provided at least one positive depiction of a person of color, but her appearance in the story also felt like one of those conveniences I mentioned. Finally, I'm not sure Brumbach really established enough background for my liking. He spends a lot of time recounting the formation and philosophies of the villains, but not as much time covering the secret society of good guys. It felt lacking.

Overall, this will be an easy book to sell to young readers, but not my personal cup of tea.

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: The Head of the Saint

The Head of the Saint
By Socorro Acioli, translated by Daniel Hahn
Published March 8, 2016 by Delacorte Press
Reviewed from e-ARC

Samuel is on a journey to fulfill his mother's dying wishes. She was all he had in this world and now she's gone. His journey leads him to a small dying town with a decapitated statue of Saint Anthony. While seeking refuge in the fallen head, Samuel begins hearing voices. Is it a gift from the saint? Or a curse?

I downloaded this galley because the plot description sounded so unique. I actually got around to reading it mostly because it's short (honesty is the best policy!).

It's definitely unique and certainly a quick read. I'm glad I picked it up. I liked the exploration of religion throughout the story and I thought the way all the threads came together in the end was really well-done. I didn't love Samuel as a character and, really, he reads much older than he is supposed to be. It's a pretty simple story but it is utterly captivating throughout and extremely well-written. It's lovely to read. I really don't have much more to say. There is just something about this that is quite stunning, something that will stay with you after you finish reading. I definitely recommend this one.

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

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Exit, Pursued by a Bear
By E.K. Johnston
Expected publication March 15, 2016 by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

Hermione Winters is co-captain of her cheerleading squad. She's worked for this her whole life so far. She's determined to make this last year the best yet. But when she is sexually assaulted at cheer camp, her perfect final season is shattered.

This book has been getting tons of buzz for many months now, so I greedily requested the digital galley and made sure I read it prior to release.

First, this book is very Canadian. I did not realize that prior to starting it and there are definitely some things that will be completely foreign to a U.S. audience. In no way am I suggesting these things should have been changed for American readers, but there is likely to be confusion about some things. It may take readers out of the story at those points as well.

Second, one of the things I loved most about this book is how completely it is Hermione's story. It is the story of her passion for cheering, her being assaulted, and how she recovers and moves forward with her life after the assault. Yes, the author explores a bit how Hermione's assault affects the lives of people most important to her, but the main focus is Hermione herself. Maybe what I'm trying to say is that I appreciated how little this book focused on the rapist. It's disheartening how shocking it was to read this kind of story - where the victim is truly the focus and the rapist is more in the periphery. I won't spoil anything for you, but my love of this aspect of the book is what made the ending a bit of a let-down for me.

Third, the community of support that Hermione has is amazing. Her parents are both involved and caring and support every decision Hermione makes along her path to recovery. Hermione also has a great group of friends. In particular, her best friend Polly is wonderful. Their friendship is maybe the most kick-ass I've read recently. It made me miss my high school friendships something fierce. Hermione also speaks to a pastor while trying to make sense of things and he is a great figure of support as well.

Fourth, this book is not afraid to address abortion, though the ease with which Hermione is able to obtain one is one of those things that might seem foreign to U.S. readers. But, the scene in the recovery room is maybe one of the most powerful I've ever read.

Ultimately, I think this is a book every teenager and every person who knows a teenager should read. It provides wonderful examples of how to help someone who has experienced this trauma while also being sure to highlight that everyone's experience and recovery will be unique. Highly recommended.

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

Friday, March 11, 2016

Review: The Land of Forgotten Girls

The Land of Forgotten Girls
By Erin Entrada Kelly
Published March 1, 2016 by Greenwillow Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Sol and Ming have not had an easy life - their mother died when they were young and their father remarried and moved them to America. And then he went back to the Philippines without them, leaving them in the care of their evil stepmother. Now, Ming believes that their adventurous, world-traveling aunt is coming to take them away. Can Sol protect Ming from the truth?

Here is another book I really wanted to like but that fell short for me (I feel as if I'm having a mostly disappointing reading year thus far). I loved the characters - all of them, from Sol and Ming to the secondary characters, are brilliantly developed. I loved the exploration of the relationship between the sisters - familial relationships are something I always pay special attention to when reading. Though I've never had a sister, it seems to me that Kelly paints a beautifully realistic portrait of what that might be like. I liked the narrative structure, with some flashbacks woven in and Sol's visits from her other (deceased) sister.  There seem to be lots of children's books dealing with grief in recent years and I'm pleased to see this (as pleased as one can be about such a sad topic). It's an important issue that we should prepare kids to discuss. In fact, there are lots of significant issues in this book that I'm pleased to see addressed in a book for middle-grade readers. They're not easy, but discussing them will certainly help kids be better citizens of the world.

I can't quite pinpoint why this didn't work for me. Maybe it's because this is a character-driven novel; by the end, I kind of wondered what the point of the whole thing was. Nothing really seems like it's going to change, at least not permanently, so why did I read this book? I guess I kept hoping for a real "Disney" happy ending to happen - which, of course, is much less common in real life. I don't mind if things don't always turn out sunshine and roses, but I just didn't love the end here.

Overall, I think Kelly has crafted a very realistic novel (with the characters, their relationships, and the world they live in feeling particularly authentic); I just expected more.

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Review: Rise of the Ragged Clover

A quick note before we get on to the review: you may have noticed that entries are more sporadic this year. I'm trying to review as I actually finish books and I've been reading lots of adult titles lately. I am reading! But I can't promise reviews with any regularity here. Thanks for reading all the same!

Rise of the Ragged Clover (Luck Uglies, book three)
By Paul Durham
Published March 1, 2016 by HarperCollins
Reviewed from e-ARC

WARNING: There may be spoilers for the previous books in the series. Read my reviews here and here.

Things go from bad to worse for Rye when she witnesses her father taking part in the Descent. Will her family recover? Add to that the Bog Noblins infesting the Village Drowning and the evil Slinister and it may be too much for Rye to handle on her own. Can she recruit others to help her? What about the rest of the reclusive Luck Uglies?

Woe is me - I did not realize this was to be the last in the series until I got to the end of this book! I am sad. I adore this series and these characters and I would have happily read several more volumes of their adventures. However, there is something to be said about trilogies (three does seem to be a magic number), so perhaps I shouldn't complain too much.

As in previous books, the strength lies in both the characters and the worldbuilding. Rye is the same as ever and it's just as frustrating and charming as in previous volumes. Quinn and Folly don't show up until a bit later this time around, so the story I kept waiting on with Quinn never materializes. (How lovely it would be for Durham to start a new series focusing on Quinn or Folly's story instead! - wishful thinking!). I loved that characters from previous books appeared again, particularly the Link Rats. It brings the whole thing full circle. The world that Durham has created seems full of possibilities for more stories - I feel like he's only scratched the surface with these three volumes and I absolutely love that.

Unlike book two, I think this one works best if you've read the other books in the series. The full impact of many plot points won't be felt if you read this by itself. I love the series, so obviously I think you should read them all anyway, but it's always good to note if you can jump around in a series.

It's also important to note that, as in previous volumes, Durham is not afraid to go dark places in this one. There is quite a lot that could be sad or frightening, so bear in mind when recommending.

Overall, I adore this series and I'm sad to see it come to a close. Definitely recommended for fantasy readers!

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

February Check-In

It's time to check in and see what I read in February!

Early-chapter: 0

Middle-grade: 4

Teen: 3

Adult: 6

Picture books: 43

Library books: 50

Books owned: 6

Read Harder Challenge: 6/24

Non-fiction goal: 3/25

Series goal: 1/5

Short stories/Novellas: 7

As anticipated my numbers are lower this month because I've been focusing more on adult reads in preparation for my trip in March. I did manage to finish out a series by reading the final book in the Luck Uglies series (review to come). I imagine my numbers for March will be even smaller; I'll be continuing to focus on reads related to my trip at the end of the month, and I don't imagine I'll be doing a ton of reading while on my trip. We'll see how it all plays out.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: The Girl from Everywhere

The Girl from Everywhere (Girl from Everywhere, book one)
By Heidi Heilig
Published February 16, 2016 by Greenwillow Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Nix has been navigating her father's ship for some time - crossing oceans and time periods and the lines of reality with the ease of any ship on calm waters. But her father's obsession with finding a map to bring him back to her dead mother could be Nix's undoing.

You know, I don't hate time travel books - certainly not in the way I shy away from anything set in space. However, I'm not terribly fond of time travel either; if I think too hard about it and the logistics of making it work, it makes my head hurt (and I'm generally not a fan of things I can't wrap my brain around). Maybe it's good for me to exercise my brain this way - I mean, I must be learning something about physics and the time-space continuum, right? But I feel like I read a lot of things that stretch my brain in other, more comfortable ways.

So, why did I read this one? Well, much like animal fantasy or things set in space/with aliens, I can't seem to leave well enough alone. I very much enjoy the IDEA of time travel - what an unbelievable thing that would be. And I have enjoyed a few things involving time travel (the movie About Time is what springs most clearly to mind). As a result, I keep going back for more, hoping to find the book that will really unlock time travel for me.

This book is not it. It's not a terrible book - I particularly liked the notion of being able to travel to any place you had a map for, as long as you believed in it (making mythological worlds accessible - AWESOME). And I found Kashmir quite charming, though his relationship with Nix was frustrating. But, for a book about time travel, there really isn' I get that we are joining Nix and her father as they finally have a strong lead on the map he's quested for Nix's entire life, but that means that they really only make one journey in this book. It makes it kind of...boring? It certainly leaves me questioning why this book needed to be almost 500 pages long (and first in a series, to boot).

I also found the book's stance on addiction problematic. Nix's father is an opium addict and I would go so far as to say that his quest for the map leading him to Nix's mother is another addiction. Knowing what I know about addiction and addicts, it seems unlikely to me that Slate's addiction would work out the way it does here. Addiction is a disease; it doesn't just go away if you love someone enough. That's a false narrative that we like to tell in our society and it creates dangerous expectations both for addicts and the people who love them. So, I had a big problem with how Slate's addiction plays out through the end of this book.

I also didn't care for the love triangle and how silly and forced the ending made the continuation of said triangle for future installments. Just no.

Ultimately, not my cup of tea, but your mileage may vary. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: The Word for Yes

The Word for Yes
By Claire Needell
Expected publication February 16, 2016 by HarperTeen

Jan, Erika, and Melanie don't always get along, but they usually manage. Their lives are changed by their parents' divorce and Jan's departure for college. And then, at a Halloween party, something terrible happens to Melanie. Will the sisters find a way to help each other through?

Oooh boy. I did not care for this book, which is hugely disappointing. This is, if not obvious from the title, a book that deals with sexual assault and issues of consent. An extremely important topic, to be sure, but I found this book very problematic.

From the very beginning, I had problems with the characters, most particularly with Melanie. Her hatred toward her sister is extremely unsettling to read - in many instances, I felt like I was reading the thoughts of a sociopath. I don't feel like her feelings against Erika are ever explained in a way that makes sense - she just seems to hate her because she's different from her. I completely understand how difficult and complicated relationships with siblings can be - I had an intense dislike of my own brother for most of my childhood. And, I suppose, maybe to an outsider, it would have been difficult to understand. But, even with my personal history of an antagonistic sibling relationship, I could not for one second relate to Melanie's feelings towards Erika.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that I related to Erika any better, either. It seems that she has some sort of developmental delay but it's never clearly addressed, which makes things a bit muddy. Eldest sister Jan was not really enough of a presence to merit much emotion - frequently, I wondered why she was there at all, since this was most clearly a story focusing on the relationship between Erika and Melanie.

And, that might lead into another issue I have with the book - for a book about sexual assault and consent, it does not deal with these issues as fully or as effectively as I would have hoped. I would actually be more likely to assert that this is a story of two sisters than it is a story of the aftermath of a sexual assault. I felt like the issues surrounding the assault were glossed over except for where they intersected with issues surrounding the relationship between the sisters. I feel like this book presents a lot of falsehoods surrounding sexual assault and does nothing to identify them as such. In fact, the afterword, the one part of the book that deals with sexual assault and consent most specifically, struck a very wrong chord for me. This book doesn't engage in overt victim-blaming (and the afterword specifically calls out victim-blaming as the wrong approach when dealing with sexual assault cases), but it certainly doesn't go out of its way to make it clear that what occurred was a crime and deserves to be handled as such. Even the afterword is wishy-washy about the criminality of the event, which I find extremely problematic.

Overall, I would not recommend this one.

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: Brambleheart

Brambleheart: A Story about Finding Treasure and the Unexpected Magic of Friendship
By Henry Cole
Published February 9, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books

The most important moment in Twig's hillside community is the Naming Ceremony. Unfortunately, Twig is afraid he won't receive a name - he hasn't found anything he's very good at. When he discovers a surprise interloper near the Hill, things begin to change for Twig. Will his secret turn his life around? Or is he putting everyone in danger?

Well, I keep saying I don't read a lot of animal fantasy and yet, I keep finding myself writing that in my reviews. So, I guess, maybe I read more of it than I think. I read Cole's last novel, A Nest for Celeste, and enjoyed it quite a bit, so when I saw this new title, I expected something along the same lines.

Unfortunately, this book didn't live up to the charm of that earlier title for me. I realize that any book that involves talking animals is, by definition, a fantasy - but I still wasn't expecting the appearance of a dragon. This element took me out of the story quite a bit. I guess I like my dragons in their own world or more seamlessly integrated into ours. The dragon here just felt out of place.

Additionally, I didn't get very invested in the story. None of the characters really struck me and I didn't care much about what happened to them. The antagonist was a little too jerky and Twig was a little too naive. The inevitable actions of the community regarding the dragon was completely unsurprising as well, though maybe it wouldn't be to a young reader.

Finally, the ending is extremely abrupt - literally, in the middle of the action. It makes a sequel seem inevitable but it's also incredibly jarring.

All in all, not my favorite read. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: Pax

By Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Published February 2, 2016 by Balzer + Bray

When Pax was an orphaned kit, Peter rescued him. They've been together ever since. Now, though, war has come and Peter must go live with his grandfather. And that means leaving Pax behind. Realizing his mistake, Peter will do anything to get Pax back, not knowing that Pax has begun a journey of his own.

This book has been getting buzz since it was announced, pretty much and, I confess, I was mostly intrigued by the notion of Jon Klassen illustrations (what can I say? I love him). I don't usually go in for animal fantasies, but I thought foxes might be okay - they're pretty intelligent creatures.

I really liked the parallel journeys of Peter and Pax - I actually think I may have enjoyed Pax's story more, but they were both excellent. I liked how similar Peter and Pax were - stubborn but loving, determined and scared. I liked that both were aided in their journeys by complex women - women who may have been mistrustful and a bit broken but who cared for the boys whose paths they crossed. I really loved all the characters - they were extraordinarily real and complicated and I felt for them. Though this is Peter and Pax's story, I thought Vola and Bristle were equally important and I may have loved them even more.

I also really appreciated that this book's setting is never specifically identified. It quite clearly makes the point that war can happen anytime and anywhere - no one is immune from its effects. The story becomes timeless.

I found it a bit on the edge of unbelievable at times, in both Peter and Pax's stories. Pax is a completely tame kit - the likelihood of his survival in the wild seems pretty low, particularly in a war zone. And Peter's stumbles didn't seem realistically paced - I don't think he'd actually have been able to continue on his journey.

But the ending - wow. It's abrupt but real. It wasn't until I read the last page and turned it, realizing that there was no more that I finally shed tears.

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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review: Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea
By Ruta Sepetys
Published February 2, 2016 by Philomel Books

Emilia tells herself a story to accept the secret she carries. Joana desperately helps anyone she can to make amends for what she's done. Florian is trying to outrun the treacherous thing he's done. And Alfred longs to prove his worth to his beloved Hannelore. These four lives will cross at the sight of the greatest maritime disaster in history.

So I absolutely loved Between Shades of Gray but was less enamored of Out of the Easy. I was cautiously excited when I heard about this one and was very pleased to be given access to the digital galley prior to publication. I really enjoyed this one.

It definitely falls more into the style of her first book - even ignoring the direct connection (which I won't spoil for you), this is another war story. It takes place during the same time period and in the same general part of the world as her debut. It shared stylistic similarities as well - the chapters are short, begging you to read just one more before setting it aside for the night. The short chapters keep the pace moving quickly, so the 400 pages absolutely fly by. Additionally, I'm generally a fan of novels using multiple POVs and I think it works very well here. We are given a variety of perspectives on the war and how one survives such a tragedy with these four main characters. I thought they were all equally well-developed, and I connected with each of them (though I'd say my connection with Alfred was one of unease and distrust).

Once again, I don't know if I should be pleased or upset that I learned something from this book. The four characters meet aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship fated for the worst maritime disaster in history. Yes, worse than the Titanic. And yet, before this book, I'd never heard of it. It's unbelievable to me how much we are not taught, but, once again, that's part of why I love historical fiction - discovering times and places I know little about (and also part of the reason I want to read more non-fiction this year). I imagine this book will be eye-opening to many readers.

My only criticism of the book is that the ending felt rushed. The majority of the book happens while the characters are on their journey toward the Gustloff. Once they are aboard, things move very quickly, and the book ends shortly after disaster strikes. I would have liked to have spent a bit more time with the characters after the tragedy before reaching the end.

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: Front Lines

Front Lines (Soldier Girl, book one)
By Michael Grant

Published January 26, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Thanks to a court decision, women are now eligible to join the armed forces, just in time for America's involvement in World War II. On the heels of that decision, three young women will enlist. Each will have her reasons and each will discover that she had no idea what she was getting into.

Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited about this book from the moment I heard about it. Alternate history is kind of my jam if done well and I finally finished reading Grant's epic Gone series, so I was primed to see what he could do with a story like this one. Let me cut to the chase: I really enjoyed this.

Maybe the best indication of how much I liked this is how surprised I was when I discovered it's nearly 600 pages long (though, given his other books, maybe I shouldn't have been). Because of formatting, books are usually shorter in ARC form than their final copy would be, so, once again, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. But really, this book flew by for me. I enjoyed every minute of reading it. I really loved the characters - all of them - though I wish they were given equal amounts of viewpoint time. Once again, Grant is tackling a lot of complicated issues here - politics, war, sexism, racism, religion, etc. Mostly, they are handled in thought-provoking ways. I think this book would be great for lots of discussions and I'd be really interested to hear what an actual teenager thought about it. I'm very much looking forward to reading more in this series.

However, I don't want to write this review without acknowledging a few things. First, this book does indeed deal with a lot of sensitive issues and it is also set during a particular moment in time. In light of so many recent discussions of what historical fiction owes its readers with regards to these sensitive topics, I'll say that it isn't outside my realm of comprehension that this book could face some criticism. This seems unlikely, given the author (let's be honest, men don't generally face nearly as much criticism as women), but I still see the possibility. And, speaking of the author, Grant has taken it upon himself to insert his opinion in many of the aforementioned discussions. His opinion has not always painted him in the best light to me, as a general fan of his work. And his opinion has contributed to a certain amount of guilt I feel over having enjoyed this book. Just typing that sentence seems unbelievable to me, because I don't believe in things like "guilty pleasure reads" - read whatever you damn well like and stuff everyone who judges you for it. But I can't deny that the guilt is there. After all, Grant is a white man, writing a series about three female protagonists, one of color. How much can he really know their experience, even in the alternate reality he's created?

I also don't want this review to go by without pointing out a ridiculous bit that I couldn't help but notice. Rio, the main character, is frequently described as a girl familiar with manual labor, not a delicate flower, but a girl with muscles. Later in the book, her army gear is described as weighing 35 pounds, one-third of what she herself weighs. If we take this at its literal word, Rio would weigh 105 pounds. Then, just a bit later, she's described as standing 5'8" tall. I can't profess to have seen every body type in the world and really, I'd rather my stories didn't include specific measurements such as these, but those descriptions don't add up in my mind to a realistic character. I wish Grant had left them out altogether; they distract much more than they add anything to Rio's character.

So, a book I enjoyed but one I feel conflicted about enjoying. Am I silly for feeling this way? Or am I going to get flack for it? I don't know, but I've always tried for honesty here (even among the handful of folks who read this), so there you have it.

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

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review: Etched in Clay

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet
By Andrea Cheng
Published 2013 by Lee & Low Books

In South Carolina in the early 1800s, a young slave named Dave is taught to make pottery. He is also taught to read and write. He will combine these two skills to become the most talented potter at the same time as he risks his life by signing his work.

This book got some attention when it was released and, being told in verse, it definitely caught my eye. As I recently weeded our children's biography section, I spotted the book again and decided to read it, knowing it would be quick. As a prose biography, it is, indeed, a quick read - probably took me about an hour altogether. But it's not a slight read. In fact, it's quite difficult to read at times - how Dave is constantly separated from the people he cares about, his tragic accident, the simple and awful fact of slavery itself. But Dave's will seems to shine through the pages. I won't say that it seems Dave had a good life - it certainly doesn't seem that way at all - but it does seem that he enjoyed making pottery and writing his poetry on the jars he made. However, what is unclear is how much of this is actually fact. I didn't get a real feeling about the line between fact and fiction in Cheng's work - so are my feelings about Dave's enjoyment of pottery accurate or not? I appreciated Cheng's efforts in drawing attention to a largely unknown historical figure. I would have liked a bit more biographical information at the end, and, if that doesn't exist, some notes on how Cheng make the choices she made.

Monday, February 1, 2016

January Check-In

It's the first check-in of the new year! Let's see how I did this month!

Early-chapter: 0

Middle-grade: 6

Teen: 10

Adult: 12

Picture books: 0

Library books: 21

Books owned: 7

Read Harder Challenge: 4/24

Non-fiction goal: 2/25

Series goal: 0/5

Short stories/Novellas: 8

So, as you can see, I've added a few categories to my monthly check-in list; these align with some of my reading goals for the year. I had a pretty decent month, though I'm obviously still working on reading my own books rather than library books. In February, I'll likely be focusing on books related to the honeymoon I'm taking in March, so probably my numbers will be heavily adult and still mostly library books.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Review: The Rose Society

The Rose Society (Young Elites, book two)
By Marie Lu
Published 2015 by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Spoilers for book one ahead.

Adelina has been betrayed and now she'll seek her revenge. With the help of her own society of gifted young adults, she'll go after those who made her care and then turned their backs. But the Young Elites have their own tricks up their sleeve.

I was pretty pumped for this book - though I'd found bits of book one predictable, I was definitely interested in seeing where Lu would take this series and these characters. However, I got less excited for it once I checked it out - I pretty much put off reading it until right before it was due back at the library. Part of my reluctance to read it was that I'd had a string of mostly disappointing books and didn't want to find out if this would be another. Another part was because my husband had read it before me and was mostly unimpressed. Did I agree with his assessment?

Here's what I liked about this one: Lu went DARK. Like, seriously dark. It's not the darkest I read - mostly because it takes place in a world dramatically different from our own, thus making it impossible to come true (stuff that actually freaks me out is stuff like Unwind - where I can actually imagine a future like it for our country). But this book is a dark place and readers should be well aware of that. However, I liked the darkness. I liked that it's clear that Lu set out to write a dark character and so far hasn't backed away from that. I like that Adelina is tortured and is likely going to pay an extremely hefty price for her choices, but she's embracing the darkness anyway. I liked that Adelina can see where she is making wrong decisions, but she's making them anyway. I liked the alternating viewpoints, though I would have liked a bit more consistency in their usage.

I did not like the introduction of a new potential love interest - can we just leave the romance out for once? Some of the plot did not make a whole lot of sense to me - in fact, most of the Young Elites political decisions seemed a bit odd. But, then again, I hate politics, so maybe they actually were smart decisions.

I liked the revelation about what it really means to be a Young Elite and I'm very anxious to see that play out in the rest of the series (not sure how many books there will be).

Overall, a very intriguing follow-up and a series to watch.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review: Secrets of Valhalla

Secrets of Valhalla
By Jasmine Richards
Published January 19, 2016 by HarperCollins

Reviewed from e-ARC

Buzz really wishes his mom would come home. Nothing has been the same since she's been gone. His dad's obsession with mythology has distanced him from both Buzz and his sister and things only get stranger when Saturday begins repeating itself. Along with his new friend, Mary, Buzz discovers that the Runes of Valhalla are missing and it's up to them to find them and reunite them with their deities before the world descends into total chaos.

So, this was the second Norse-mythology inspired book I read in the span of about a month and I enjoyed this one much more than the other (I know, I was surprised, too). Now, I'm not saying this is the upper echelon of literature, but this was fun and incorporated the mythology well. I enjoyed all the characters (though sometimes Buzz and Mary's dialogue felt stilted and unrealistic for kids of their age - though I suppose there could be an explanation for at least Mary's part of that). I felt like I learned a lot more about Norse mythology in this book than in my other recent read, though it still doesn't go as in-depth as other mythology-based books I've read. That being said, I thought it explained things clearly and interestingly - it doesn't FEEL like the book is trying to teach you (well, at least most of the time) and it's all easy to understand. I thought the journey the characters underwent was fun and I liked visiting the different gods and realms. The ending is a bit overly sweet and tidy, but I was glad that things worked out. Overall, a cute story and bonus points for characters of color as the protagonists.

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

YA Graphic Novels

I've read several young adult graphic novels this month, so I figured I'd review them all at once.

A Brave is Brave (Junior Braves of the Apocalypse, book one)
By Greg Smith and Michael Tanner, illustrated by Zach Lehner
Published 2015 by Oni Press
Tribe 65 has just returned from their camping trip, but the world is not as they left it. They can't find their parents and the adults they do run into have gone a bit...weird.

Well, I mean, how could I resist a series called Junior Braves of the Apocalypse? Obviously, I could not. So I picked up this first volume when it arrived at the library. It was very reminiscent of The Walking Dead and I won't be surprised if it continues that way. Actually, most zombie apocalypse lit is pretty similar, moving from one safe space to the next as new challenges and problems arise. I found the panels a bit difficult to follow at times, but overall, this was a pretty fun read. I'll be looking for book two.

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir
By Maggie Thrash
Published 2015 by Candlewick Press
Maggie has spent every summer at the same camp but the summer she is fifteen, one unexpected moment changes her life forever.

I'd heard a lot about this graphic memoir in the weeks leading up to its publication and immediately after, so I was definitely interested in checking it out. Since I've been reading so many graphic novels lately and it happened to be on the shelf when I picked up a few new ones, I figured now was a good time to read this one. I really enjoyed it. I liked the simplicity of Maggie's story and I sure related to it. I think many teens will be able to relate to Maggie and her story. I liked all the people we meet throughout as well. I wasn't as crazy about the art style, but as the story progressed, I thought it suited the tone of the book well. Definitely recommend this one.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
By Prudence Shen, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks
Published 2013 by First Second
Charlie and Nate are unlikely friends, but their bond is tested when Nate declares war against the cheerleaders and Charlie is unwillingly thrown into the war. With funding for school groups on the line, both sides have something to lose.

Well, honestly, for something with this title, I really expected more to go wrong. This was fun enough, with some legitimate laugh out loud moments as well as some heartfelt ones. But, as a whole, nothing about this story really struck me as extraordinary or outstanding. As I said, I expected more to go wrong - the stakes never really felt that high and I never really believed that everything wouldn't work out in the end. I just expected more from this one.

By Ayun Halliday, illustrated by Paul Hoppe
Published 2012 by Schwartz & Wade
When Sadie transfers to a new school, she has what she thinks is the perfect plan for making friends - she'll make a peanut allergy. It's interesting enough that people will want to know more, but not dangerous enough to worry about. Or so she thinks, because Sadie is about to discover it's a whole lot more complicated than she planned on.

I remember being intrigued by this one way back when it was released and it gets read enough every year that it's still kicking around our heavily weeded teen section, so I picked it up recently when I spotted it on the shelf. I did not enjoy this one. I couldn't ever get over how selfish and naive Sadie was by pretending to have this allergy - yeah, it's not the worse illness she could have faked, but it can still be life-threatening. Really, I spent most of my time reading this waiting for Sadie to get her comeuppance. And, to that end, I found the bit at the end with Zoo extremely unsatisfactory. Just did not like this one.

Level Up
By Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Thien Pham
Published 2011 by First Second
Dennis loves nothing as much as he loves video games, but when four cute but intimidating angels show up to point him in the right direction, he finds myself in medical school and on the way to living up to his dad's dreams for him.

By this point, I think I've read pretty much every graphic novel that Yang has published (at least those for young people and excepting Avatar). I never picked this one up when it was released but when I spotted it on the shelf, I figured it was overdue. I didn't get this one. The implication was that it would be about video games, but it's really not. Yes, Dennis plays video games in the beginning and again at the end, but in the main section in the middle, he really doesn't seem to care that much about them. Mostly, he seems to just care about doing something other than gastroenterology. And that moment when he controls the camera during an endoscopy? What is the point of that if he's still going to choose something else? The story just didn't add up for me. Disappointing.

Will & Whit
By Laura Lee Gulledge
Published 2013 by Abrams
Will is trying to overcome a family tragedy that has left her afraid of the dark. Will a blackout caused by a huge hurricane force her to deal with both things?

Another graphic novel I remember hearing a lot about and neglecting to pick up in a timely manner, I really enjoyed the art style of this one. The story was a bit less cohesive than I hoped - the hurricane was really nothing more than a plot device and didn't seem to effect the characters in a way that felt realistic. I liked the idea of Will dealing with her grief in a very specific way - through art - and I also appreciated that it manifested in a very specific way - her fear of the dark. It's a small but eye-opening fact to anyone who thinks that grief largely looks the same on everyone. But, as I said, the hurricane seemed like nothing more than something to advance Will's story - I wanted it to have even more of an impact. The other characters were fun, but still mostly felt like set decorations to Will's story.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review: The Goblin's Puzzle

The Goblin's Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy with No Name and Two Girls Called Alice
By Andrew S. Chilton

Published January 19, 2016 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

Boy has only known life as a slave, but when he meets a goblin, he begins to question his Destiny. And Plain Alice has been mistakenly kidnapped by a dragon who thinks she's the Princess Alice. Their paths will cross and change them all forever.

I admit that the intriguingly long title is what caught my eye about this one. What I liked most about this one was the use of logic puzzles. I think books that include puzzles like that are endlessly appealing to kids - it's why I loved The Mysterious Benedict Society so many years ago. I liked that this one tackled logic instead of more traditional puzzles; it was a really intriguing way to look at the problem. I also appreciated the Alices - I liked them both quite a bit and I think they were given equal time as Boy.

What I liked less about this was the application of the logic to the existence of slaves. Something about the whole thing just didn't sit well with me. It felt like they were saying logically, owning slaves is wrong, but practically, maybe not. I'm sure that wasn't the intent, but it just felt off.

This has enough action to keep readers turning the pages, but it is at its heart a pretty standard fantasy quest novel.

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: Up from the Sea

Up from the Sea
By Leza Lowitz
Published 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-ARC

Kai has practiced for earthquakes and tsunamis but he still never expected to experience one. And the one that hits is more massive than anyone could have predicted. Now, Kai is alone, having lost everything. How will he find a way to go on?

This caught my eye because it's a novel in verse, something I generally find hard to resist. Additionally, I don't read a lot of books set in Asia, and this one takes place during the horrific 2011 tsunami, so I was even more intrigued.

I liked Kai and his grief felt real - he has already been abandoned by his father and now the tsunami has come and destroyed everything else he loves. The way back from all this loss feels impossible. Indeed, I couldn't blame him for not caring much about anything. But I think this is meant to show us how important it is to keep going - even if you think you've lost everything, there are still people depending on you, people whose lives would be changed if you did give up. It's a pretty significant message.

I really liked the connection that Kai makes with children who lost their parents in the attacks of September 11 - the tragedies are different but they have commonalities, another significant message that could bear repeating. We have more in common with each other than we may think.

Though this is a heavy book, I didn't feel as emotionally connected as I expected to - I think the verse format may have inhibited character development in this case. Additionally, I don't care much for soccer, so that story just didn't interest me, though I understand its inclusion. A pretty solid read.

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: Blue in the Face

Blue in the Face: A Story of Risk, Rhyme, and Rebellion
By Gerry Swallow
Published January 12, 2016 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Reviewed from e-ARC

Elspeth is used to getting what she wants. After all, if her parents refuse, all she has to do is her patented holding-her-breath trick and they give in. Only this time, they don't. And this time, when Elsepth actually holds her breath until passing out, she awakes in a strange world. But does a part of her belong in this world?

I'm a big fan of retellings and this one suggested it would tackle nursery rhymes, something a bit more unusual than fairy tales. That was my favorite thing about this one, actually: the alleged truth behind the nursery rhymes. I liked that Swallow incorporated both well-known and lesser-known rhymes and made Old King Cole a terrible villain. I liked the notion that Elspeth was actually a nursery rhyme character who somehow crossed into our ordinary world, but her return to the nursery rhyme kingdom was prophesied. Elspeth herself is not a particularly enjoyable character, but the nursery rhyme characters she meets are quite delightful (I particularly loved The Cheese and the Three Blind Mice).

There aren't a lot of surprises in the story - Elspeth begins the book as a spoiled, self-involved brat but her exploits in the nursery rhyme kingdom help her grow and evolve. The "it was all a dream" ending (or was it?) was also kind of unsurprising, but I think it will make for great discussion.

Overall, a fun take on nursery rhymes. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.