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!