Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Maze Runner Goes to School in New YA Dystopian

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When 17-year-old Benson Fisher receives a scholarship to Maxfield Academy, he's thrilled. Nervous, but thrilled. After being bumped from foster home to foster home for most of his life, he hopes the private high school might provide the kind of haven he's never experienced before. Maybe he'll make friends for once. Maybe living with a bunch of other kids at a secluded boarding school will make them all super close. Like a family.

The knots in Benson's stomach pretzel even tighter when he sees the school. Housed in a sprawling mansion, Maxfield Academy looks like the kind of rich-kid prep school you see on t.v. Only it's stranded in the middle of the New Mexico desert, not in some quaint New England town. It's remote, exclusive and ... sinister. Benson can't quite put his finger on it, but he knows something's not quite right at his new school.

It doesn't take him long to discover there are no adults at Maxfield Academy. Divided into three gangs, the students run the school - as much as they can while taking orders from a nameless source that watches their every move and doles out punishments to make sure the rules are always followed. Constantly monitored by security cameras, the kids at Maxfield are forced to attend class, wear their uniforms, keep the school clean and orderly, play brutal war games, and get along. Small infractions result in demerits. Breaking the Big Four - No Sex, No Violent Fights, No refusing punishments, and No escaping - equals death.

Disturbed by his classmates' calm acceptance of the way Maxfield runs, Benson's determined to escape. He doesn't care if no one's ever done it before. Foster care has made him both tough and street smart; if anyone can get out of the place, he can. Only, the longer he stays, the more connected he feels to his new friends. He can't leave them all behind, but he can't get them to abandon Maxfield either. None of the kids at the school, including Benson, have anything to go home to - whoever runs Maxfield made sure of that - so maybe everyone else is right, maybe staying at the creepy institution is better than the alternative. Or not. When Benson stumbles on the terrifying secret behind Maxfield's elegant facade, he knows he has to get himself and every one of his classmates out. Now. But, how? Maxfield might as well be Alcatraz. And trying to get a whole pack of teenagers over an impenetrable wall feels a lot like suicide. Running out of time and options, Benson has to act - before it's too late for them all.

Variant, a new YA dystopian by Robison Wells (available October 4), feels so familiar it could have been subtitled The Maze Runner Goes to School. Although the story's got a twist toward the end that differentiates it from James Dashner's popular series, I still wanted more originality from this debut novel. Also subtlety and complexity and just more depth overall. That being said, I'm intrigued by the possibilities suggested by the ending of Variant. While I didn't love this first book in the series, I'll give the second one a chance, if only to see how Wells explains everything that's happened thus far. Despite my hang-ups with Variant, it's still got me asking that most ancient and compelling of questions: "What happens next?" In spite of myself, I need to know. So, yeah, I'm lukewarm about this one, but still willing to give the series a chance. I'm hoping Wells will surprise me. And good.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot of The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials by James Dashner; also a little like the Hunger Games trilogy [The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay] by Suzanne Collins)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Variant from the generous folks at Harper Teen. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quirky Charm Makes Incorrigibles Memorable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I usually write my own book summaries, but occasionally, I come across one that recounts a difficult-to-describe story so well, I just have to use it. Case in point:

Of especially naughty children, it is sometimes said: "They must have been raised by wolves." The Incorrigible children actually were.

Discovered in the forests of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children: Alexander keeps his siblings in line with gentle nips; Cassiopeia has a bark that is (usually) worse than her bite; and Beowulf is alarmingly adept at chasing squirrels.

Luckily, Miss Penelope Lumley is no ordinary governess. Only fifteen years old and a graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must eliminate their canine tendencies.

But mysteries abound at Ashton Place: Who are these three wild creatures? Why does Old Timothy, the coachman, lurk around every corner? Will Penelope be able to civilize the Incorrigibles in time for Lady Constance's holiday ball? And what on earth is a schottische?

Penelope is no stranger to mystery, as her own origins are also cloaked in secrecy. But as Agatha Swanburne herself once said, "Things may happen for a reason, but that doesn't mean we know what the reason is - at least not yet."

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling, the first book in a series by Maryrose Wood, is just as quirky as the summary makes it sound. Penelope's adventures with her infectious charges, her fussy mistress, and the inscrutable Mr. Ashton, make for a funny, warmhearted romp that's as charming as it is engaging. I enjoyed it so much I would have read the next book anyway, but the plot twist at the end of this one clinched the deal. Now, I have to see where the story goes. I'm pretty sure I've already got the mystery of the children's origin solved - now I just have to find out if I'm right. See you soon, Incorrigibles!

(Readalikes: The book's tone reminded me a little of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books, although the story's much different.)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling from the generous folks at Harper Collins. Thank you!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Cows Can't Jump: "I Wike Dat Stowy"

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I don't review tons of picture books, but I do read a lot of them to my younger kids. My 2-year-old generally prefers stories involving at least one Disney princess and my 6-year-old usually gravitates toward non-fiction books on boy topics (cars, boats, construction vehicles, etc.). However, when I asked my little critics who wanted to listen to a story, three of them piled onto the couch with me (my 12-year-old has the flu, otherwise I'm *sure* he would have joined us :]). Surrounded by a trio of warm bodies, I opened up Cows Can't Jump by Dave Reisman. Giggles ensued. When we got to the end of the story, all three agreed it was a keeper. I didn't love it quite as much as the kids did, but I truly believe that when it comes to picture books, children know best.

The story follows a simple pattern - it shows something an animal can't do (i.e. jump), then something it can (i.e. swim). Not all of the verbs used in the book are that self-explanatory, however. Some of the animals scurry or glide or wallow, which leads to questions and, thus, vocabulary development. By focusing on things the animals can do, the book also helps kids practice positive thinking about others and themselves. The bright, colorful illustrations (by Jason A. Mass) keep children interested, prompting smiles when an unexpected animal shows up. All in all, it's a fun, informative book that doesn't feel educational. My 2-year-old summed it up pretty well when she proclaimed, "I wike dat stowy."

My favorite picture books usually have a memorable rhythm (The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss; Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault; Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin, Jr.), stunning pictures (On The Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman) or a theme that's surprising/touching/funny/unique (Love You Forever by Robert Munsch; Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes; The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle). This one didn't have any of these elements or anything that really made it stick out for me. Still, it's a fun, warmhearted story that's short enough to keep kids' attention, even after many readings. I appreciate its message, its subtle teaching, and the fact that my kids enjoyed it. Really, I'm not sure there is a better endorsement out there than this, so I'll repeat my toddler's enthusiastic, "I wike dat story" and weave it at dat.

(Readalikes: Um, I can't think of anything, can you?)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

To the FTC, with love: I received two signed, finished copies of Cows Can't Jump from the generous folks at Jumping Cow Press. Thank you!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ignore the Cover Art - Everything I Was Warm, Funny and Hopeful

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Despite its rather ominous cover, Everthing I Was by Corinne Demas, is actually a very sweet story. It begins on the day 13-year-old Irene moves out of her posh Upper West Side apartment. With her father out of work, her family can no longer afford the exorbiant rent, even though they've auctioned off valuable art, let the housekeeper go, and sold her father's Jag. Unless a job suddenly becomes available, her private school tuition won't be paid, and Irene won't be able to return except as a scholarship student - a fate too embarrassing to contemplate. In the meantime, the family's moving to the country to live with Irene's paternal grandfather, who lives on a rural farm. Irene's leaving her whole life behind, with nothing to look forward to ahead of her.

Irene's high-maintenance mother can't stand life in the boondocks, while Irene and her father find that it suits them quite well. Part of Irene's enthusiasm comes from discovering the Fox family. With a down-to-Earth mother (so different from Irene's own), a kind, if absentminded father and five active children, the Foxes' big, rundown mansion is as alluring as a circus. Resembles one, too. The more Irene gets to know the large, loving family, the more she sees the dysfunction in her own. Still, she's happy. Especially when 15-year-old Jim Fox comes around.

When an opportunity comes up in the city, Irene doesn't know what to think: City or country? Old life or new? As she deals with this newest life reversal, she must come to terms with her family, her friends, but, most of all, herself.

The cover of this one really threw me; the darkness of it still bothers me. Not that the story's all flowers and bubbles. It's not, but it's definitely lighter than the cover indicates. That little issue aside, though, I enjoyed Everything I Was. It's a quick read, full of warmth, humor and hope. It's a timely story and one I think young readers will find relatable in this time of economic upheavel. Even if they've never been uprooted, they'll sympathize with Irene, fall for the laidback Jim, and enjoy this gentle ride out into the countryside.

(Readalikes: The Foxes reminded me of the Penderwicks in the series by Jeanne Birdsall, although the books really aren't similar at all.)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13? - This is the first time I've ever encountered this situation, so I'm not sure exactly how to rate Everything I Was. Irene says the F-word twice, which should automatically make the book an R. However, there's nothing else in the book that's offensive. A little kissing, but that's it. Weird, right? If it weren't for those two F-bombs, the book would be PG. So, what do I give it? PG-13? R? I'm going to stick with the former for now.

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Everything I Was from the generous folks at Carol Rhoda LAB. Thank you!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Debut Dystopian Needs More Than Just Action

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The United States of America was once a great country. Fifteen-year-old Stephen Quinn knows this from the stories he's heard, the ruins he's explored. But that was 20 years ago, before the U.S. lobbed nukes at China, before war devastated the country, before China unleashed P11 - a vicious flu virus nicknamed "The Eleventh Plague" - to finish off anyone the war hadn't. Resources had been running low even before that, causing oil shortages and other problems. Now, the nation's nothing but a vast wasteland, covered with rusting automobiles and crumbling buildings, worthless relics of the past.

To survive, Stephen and his father work as salvagers, combing through wrecked cities in search of anything they can trade for food, clothing and other supplies. As long as they dodge all the bandits and slavers on the loose, it's a successful enough enterprise. But when a run-in with the wrong sort leaves Stephen's father near death, Stephen knows he can't proceed alone. He has to find help. Even if it means doing the one thing he vowed never to do - trust a stranger.

When he's brought to the small village of Settler's Landing, Stephen's amazed by the tidy, civilized society. Isolated and safe, it's like a tiny oasis in the middle of the wide, treacherous Sahara. Stephen can hardly believe the place is real. The longer he stays there, though, the more he realizes that Settler's Landing isn't exactly what it appears to be. When he and his new friend, the mischevious Jenny , play a prank that goes horribly awry, Stephen remembers just how dangerous this changed new world really is.

The Eleventh Plague, a debut novel by Jeff Hirsch, offers a bleak, but relatively tame, look at the end of the world. The book's got enough grit to be suspenseful, while remaining clean enough for a young young adult audience (I debated whether to rate it PG or PG-13, finally settling on the latter just to be on the safe side). While there's not a lot of originality to the book, it kept my attention with lots of action, something that will also appeal to teen boys, I'm sure. Still, I longed for better character development, stronger imagery and more dynamic dialogue. Without all that, The Eleventh Plague remains just okay for me. That book cover, though? Perfection.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Prized by Caragh M. O'Brien)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language, violence, and intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Eleventh Plague from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Who Does Depression Hurt? Everyone.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Losing her mother was hard enough, but now Serena's lost her father as well. At least that's how it feels. Ever since the car accident that killed his wife, Michael Shaw's been overcome by the "blue," so sad he won't leave the house, change out of his pajamas, eat, or work on the drawings he creates for his job as a freelance picture book illustrator. Serena needs him to snap out of it. And fast. The 7th grader's got enough going on with schoolwork, play practice, friend drama, and a cute boy who's finally showing some interest in her. She doesn't need the added burdens of laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, housework, watching her little brother, and making excuses for her father. Serena's been carrying it all for eighteen months; she's not sure how much longer she can take it.

Knowing one wrong move could land her and her brother in foster care, Serena's desperate to hold her world together. But as her father slides deeper down into the pit of his depression, keeping up appearances becomes harder and harder. She can't ask anyone for help, but she can't hold things together for much longer. It's only a matter of time before someone figures out her dad's not right. Can she figure out a way to cure him before it's too late? Or will the "blue" destroy the only family she's got left?

Even though I hate the idea of children being forced into adult roles because of circumstances beyond their control, I'm always drawn to these kinds of stories, be they real or fictional. The strength and resiliency of children never ceases to amaze and inspire me. I was especially excited, then, to read Silhouetted by the Blue, a new middle grade novel by Traci L. Jones, since it's a survival against-all-odds story featuring an African-American tween. It's a realistic portrayal of depression and the toll it can take on not only the sufferer, but also on his family. Serena's take on it all is an honest one - she feels alternately responsible, resentful and guilty. The story's got its doom and gloom, for sure, but there are some light, funny moments as well. While I didn't love the book quite as much as I wanted to, I still think it's an important story. It's timely, relevant, and a tale that will likely hit close to home for both children and adults.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of What Can't Wait by Ashley Hope Perez)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and some intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Silhouetted by the Blue from the generous folks at Farrar Straus Giroux. Thank you!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Boarding School Ghost Story Not Quite As Chilling As Creepy-Cool Cover Suggests

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The minute Leena Thomas spies Frost House crouching at the edge of Barcroft Academy's campus, she knows she has to live there. Nestled in a grove of trees, the cozy old Victorian - so much more inviting than the rest of the boarding school's dormitories - just feels like the perfect place for Leena and her friends to spend their senior year. It's a boy's dorm, but Leena's pretty sure she can use her connections to get that changed. Her plan comes together so perfectly, it's like the whole thing was meant to be.

Except for Celeste Lazar. She was never part of Leena's plan. And yet, the freaky, art-obsessed senior is now rooming with Leena thanks to the bulky cast on Celeste's broken leg and Frost House's easier access to campus. Leena's friends can't stop complaining about an outsider intruding on their perfect senior year. She's not thrilled about it either, but Leena's willing to put forth an effort. It's only for a semester. She can handle anything for a semester.

Or so she thinks until things in their shared bedroom start to get ... strange. Celeste's artwork seems to jump off the wall despite being securely fastened, Celeste's senior project gets ruined in some mysterious way, and Celeste keeps waking up with bruises all over her body. She blames the other girls, even a malevolent "presence" she insists lurks in the house. Leena's reluctant to believe her frantic new roomie, especially considering mental illness runs in Celeste's family. Besides, Leena feels completely welcome in the house and in their room. In fact, she feels more than welcome, she feels connected, almost needed by the place. But as Leena grows closer to Celeste's gorgeous older brother David, she's drawn deeper into Celeste's problems and further away from the other girls in Frost House. As Leena fights to keep her friends, help Celeste, and hold onto David, she feels her world come crashing down. Frost House becomes her sanctuary - a sanctuary that wants to keep her safe. Forever.

Frost, a debut novel by Marianna Baer, looks like a creepy little ghost tale (I mean, just look at that cover!). And it is. Kinda. Although, really, it's more psychological thriller than horror story. The former, though, never really got intense enough for me and the latter seemed too cliche. That, along with flat characters and Baer's tendency toward wordiness irritated me - not enough to keep me from finishomg the book, but enough that I'm not gushing over Frost. For a first novel, it's not bad, it's just not as good as I hoped it would be. Too bad because that creepy-coll cover still gives me chills.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong languge, mild sexual content, intense situations and depictions of underrage drinking and prescription drug abuse.

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Frost from the generous folks at Harper Teen. Thank you!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Since I'm Already Stalling ...

... I might as well play along. I'm not sure where this one started, but I first saw it over on my friend Robin's blog. She's an up-and-coming YA novelist, so go on over there and give her a little link love. If you want to play along, please do - and don't forget to leave me a link to your post in the comments. Have fun!



100 YA Book Chain

Bold = I've Read It
Italics = I Own It
Underline = Started, didn't finish

1. Alex Finn – Beastly
2. Alice Sebold – The Lovely Bones
3. Ally Carter – Gallagher Girls (1, 2, 3, 4)
4. Ally Condie – Matched
5. Alyson Noel – The Immortals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
6. Anastasia Hopcus – Shadow Hills
7. Angie Sage – Septimus Heap (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
8. Ann Brashares – The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (1, 2, 3, 4)
9. Anna Godbersen – Luxe (1, 2, 3, 4)
10. Anthony Horowitz – Alex Rider (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
11. Aprilynne Pike – Wings (1, 2, 3)
12. Becca Fitzpatrick – Hush, Hush (1, 2)
13. Brandon Mull – Fablehaven (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
14. Brian Selznick – The Invention of Hugo Cabret
15. Cassandra Clare – The Mortal Instruments (1, 2, 3, 4)
16. Carrie Jones – Need (1, 2, 3)
17. Carrie Ryan – The Forest of Hands and Teeth (1, 2, 3)
18. Christopher Paolini - Inheritance (1, 2, 3, 4)
19. Cinda Williams Chima – The Heir Chronicles (1, 2, 3)
20. Colleen Houck – Tigers Saga (1, 2)
21. Cornelia Funke – Inkheart (1, 2, 3)
22. Ellen Hopkins – Impulse
23. Eoin Colfer – Artemis Fowl (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
24. Faraaz Kazi – Truly, Madly, Deeply
25. Frank Beddor – The Looking Glass Wars (1, 2, 3)
26. Gabrielle Zevin – Elsewhere
27. Gail Carson Levine – Fairest
28. Holly Black – Tithe (1, 2, 3)
29. J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
30. James Dashner – The Maze Runner (1, 2)
31. James Patterson – Maximum Ride (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
32. Jay Asher – Thirteen Reasons Why
33. Jeanne DuPrau – Books of Ember (1, 2, 3, 4)
34. Jeff Kinney – Diary of a Wimpy Kid (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
35. John Boyne – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
36. John Green – An Abundance of Katherines
37. John Green – Looking for Alaska
38. John Green – Paper Towns
39. Jonathan Stroud – Bartimaeus (1, 2, 3, 4)
40. Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl – Caster Chronicles (1, 2)
41. Kelley Armstrong – Darkest Powers (1, 2, 3)
42. Kristin Cashore – The Seven Kingdoms (1, 2)
43. Lauren Kate – Fallen (1, 2, 3)
44. Lemony Snicket - Series of Unfortunate Events (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13) 45. Libba Bray – Gemma Doyle (1, 2, 3)
46. Lisa McMann – Dream Catcher (1, 2, 3)
47. Louise Rennison – Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
48. M.T. Anderson – Feed
49. Maggie Stiefvater – The Wolves of Mercy Falls (1, 2, 3)
50. Margaret Peterson Haddix – Shadow Children (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
51. Maria V. Snyder – Study (1, 2, 3)
52. Markus Zusak - The Book Thief
53. Markus Zusak – I am the Messenger
54. Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
55. Mary Ting – Crossroads
56. Maureen Johnson – Little Blue Envelope (1, 2)
57. Meg Cabot – All-American Girl (1, 2)
58. Meg Cabot – The Mediator (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
59. Meg Cabot – The Princess Diaries (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
60. Meg Rosoff – How I live now
61. Megan McCafferty – Jessica Darling (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
62. Megan Whalen Turner – The Queen’s Thief (1, 2, 3, 4)
63. Melina Marchetta – On the Jellicoe Road
64. Melissa de la Cruz – Blue Bloods (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
65. Melissa Marr – Wicked Lovely (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
66. Michael Grant – Gone (1, 2, 3, 4)
67. Nancy Farmer – The House of the Scorpion
68. Neal Shusterman – Unwind
69. Neil Gaiman – Coraline
70. Neil Gaiman – Stardust
71. Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
72. P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast – House of Night (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 )
73. Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials (1, 2, 3)
74. Rachel Caine – The Morganville Vampires (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
75. Rachel Cohn & David Levithan – Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
76. Richelle Mead – Vampire Academy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
77. Rick Riordan – Percy Jackson and the Olympians (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
78. Rom LcO’Feer – Somewhere carnal over 40 winks
79. S.L. Naeole – Grace (1, 2, 3, 4)
80. Sabrina Bryan & Julia DeVillers – Princess of Gossip
81. Sarah Dessen – Along for the Ride
82. Sarah Dessen – Lock and Key
83. Sarah Dessen – The Truth about Forever
84. Sara Shepard – Pretty Little Liars (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
85. Scott Westerfeld - Leviathan (1, 2)
86. Scott Westerfeld - Uglies (1, 2, 3)
87. Shannon Hale – Book of a Thousand Days
88. Shannon Hale – Princess Academy
89. Shannon Hale – The Books of Bayern (1, 2, 3, 4)
90. Sherman Alexie & Ellen Forney – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
91. Simone Elkeles – Perfect Chemistry (1, 2, 3)
92. Stephanie Meyer – The Host [Robin's? note: This, of course, is not YA—not sure why it’s on the list]
93. Stephanie Meyer – Twilight Saga (1, 2, 3, 4)
94. Sue Monk Kidd – The Secret Life of Bees
95. Susan Beth Pfeffer – Last Survivors (1, 2, 3)
96. Suzanne Collins – Hunger Games (1, 2, 3)
97. Suzanne Collins – Underland Chronicles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
98. Terry Pratchett – Tiffany Aching (1, 2, 3, 4)
99. Tonya Hurley – Ghost Girl (1, 2, 3)
100. Wendelin Van Draanen – Flipped

- So, I'm not sure who came up with this list or why some books were included and some weren't. Also, I don't agree that all of these are YA - some are MG, some adult. Whatever. It's just for fun. Tell me, though: Which have you read? Which were/were not worth it? And which should I read ASAP?

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Post-Hawaii Hop

It's been a little while since I Hopped, so I think I'll join in the fun this week. Besides, I'm still *recovering* from my Hawaiian vacation (which was fabulous, by the way), so this will be a nice break for me while I'm still frantically trying to catch up on book reviews. I'm only 4 behind at the moment - someday I'll get back on track! In the mean time, you should really Hop along with me. All you need to do is head over to Crazy For Books and sign up. Easy cheesy, as my kids would say.

On to this week's question: As a book blogger, how do you introduce yourself in your profile?

- The short answer is: Look over on my left sidebar and you can see for yourself. The long answer? I decided to go with more of an introduction to the blog rather than to myself on the main page, since I figure that's what new visitors most want to know. My intro's kind of wordy, but it gets the job done :) The (More Than You Ever Wanted to Know) About Me tab at the top of my blog gives readers the - optional - opportunity to learn more about me personally. This way really works for me.

How about you? What's your approach? And what do you think of mine? Should I snazz up my profile? My About Me page? What say you?

If you're visiting BBB for the first time, welcome! I'm so glad you're here. Feel free to take a look around and leave me lots of comments. I'll be sure to return the favor. If you're one of my "oldies-but-goodies," thanks so much for hanging out with me. Hopefully, you already know how much I love you and appreciate your loyalty. I'm working on all kinds of new reviews, so whether you're a new reader or an old one, keep checking back for new content.

Have a wonderful weekend, everybody. Happy Reading!

Lucy Christopher's Newest Quietly Moving

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Watching the swans has always been a father/daughter thing, something wondrous and beautiful just for 13-year-old Isla to share with her dad. They're both obsessed with the magnificent creatures, who flock to their English town to winter on its lakes. It's during one of the pair's early morning bird watching expeditions that Isla's father collapses. He's rushed to the hospital with a terrified Isla in tow. Although the doctors manage to stabilize him, her father's too sick to leave, his heart too weak to function as it should. When - and if - the physicians can fix him remains to be seen.

In a daze, Isla wanders through the hospital, stopping when she says a guy about her age attached to an IV pole. Henry Brambling is funny, kind, and doesn't tease Isla about her fervent love for the outdoors the way other teenagers do. He's also a patient in the cancer ward. With his leukemia in remission, Henry doesn't seem as sick as Isla's dad - at least Henry's got the energy to tease her and show her around the hospital. And when Isla spots an injured swan floating on the pond outside Henry's window, he agrees to keep an eye on it for her.

Helping the swan fly becomes Isla's new mission. An irrational voice inside her whispers that if she can cure the bird, she can cure her father. Henry, too. But as the swan stubbornly resists her efforts to heal it, so do the two people Isla wants to help the most. Isla knows she can't fail, can't lose everything dear to her, but as she observes all the broken bodies around her, her faith fails her. What if she doesn't succeed? What if she loses them all?

Flyaway, the new (available October 1) middle-grade book by YA novelist Lucy Christopher is a gentle story about a young girl's determination to save her beloved father. Its emphasis on swans makes it original, while its exploration of fear and hope in the face of a crisis makes it universal. Flyaway is touching, thouh not in a way that's overdone or cheesy. Like Isla herself, the story is brave, hopeful and quietly moving. Somber maybe, but also fresh and uplifting. Like watching a swan launch into the sky, triumphantly soaring into the clouds.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a litte bit of The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Flyaway from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

One Fish, Two Fish, Travis Is A Blue Fish. What Will Happen If (When?) His Whole School Finds Out His Shameful Secret?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Travis Roberts may not be able to read a Dr. Seuss story, but he knows what a blue fish is. It's someone like him, a dummy who can't make any sense of words, an idiot who can't even sound his way through a picture book. It wouldn't be so bad if he was in kindergarten, but Travis isn't 5, he's 13, and if the other junior high kids learn his dirty little secret, he'll never hear the end of it. At least his recent move to tiny Russett, Wisconsin, means no one at his new school knows about his illiteracy. All Travis has to do is keep it that way.

Travis is faking his way through classes and homework assignments well enough to satisfy his grandpa (who only cares enough to make sure Travis isn't skipping) when he meets the flamboyant Vida Wojciehowski, a.k.a Velveeta. The chatty 13-year-old doesn't do subtle - she knows Travis is hiding something and she's determined to find out what. Not that she's going to be giving up any of her own secrets in the process. Still, as nervous as Velveeta makes him, Travis likes her, almost enough to trust her with his problem. Almost.

When an English teacher discovers Travis' difficulty, he offers Travis something he hasn't felt in a long time: hope. But trusting Mr. McQueen means offering up his most vulnerable self. It means caring. It means trying. It means maybe, just maybe, climbing out of the hole he's made for himself out of misery and grief. The only question left is: How long will it take Velveeta to find out Mr. McQueen's teaching Travis to read? And what will happen when her big mouth broadcasts his secret to the whole school?

Bluefish by Pat Schmatz may be the first YA "issue" book I've read about illiteracy and I'm starting to wonder why. The issue's certainly pertinent. Still, it's not one I see addressed much. Schmatz, thankfully, covers the topic in a way that's honest, sensitive and hopeful. Her characters come alive on the page, inspiring an empathy that makes their plights even more heartbreaking. I appreciated the importance and originality of this book (Velveeta's character, especially, spoke to me) while at the same time feeling a little bit of disconnect with the story. I'm not sure why except that maybe the story got a wee bit too predictable for me. Still, it definitely made an impression. Just not a huge, shout-it-from-the-rooftops one.

(Readalikes: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is mentioned several times in Bluefish and I do see a few similarities there.)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo and some mature subject matter

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Bluefish from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good Graces: The O'Malley Sisters Ride Again ... And It's About Time

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Good Graces, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Whistling in the Dark. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Seeing as they're all about bad things happening to innocent children, it seems wrong to use words like "love" and "adore" when talking about Lesley Kagen's books. But there you have it. I love them. And I adore the author more and more with each novel she writes. Her stories have dark edges, that's for sure; at the same time, though, they're populated with warmth, humor and a charming nostalgia that keeps me coming back for more. Her newest is no exception.

Good Graces takes place in the summer of 1960, a year after the traumatic events that unfold in Whistling in the Dark. It's scorching hot in Milwaukie and 11-year-old Sally O'Malley wants nothing more than to spend her school-free days sitting at the soda counter in Fitzpatrick's Drugstore. And not just because of the ice cream cones. She's taken a shine to the owner's delicate son, Henry. But as much as Sally longs to flirt away her summer, with a little sister like Troo, she knows it ain't gonna happen. Especially considering the death-bed promise she made to her beloved stepfather in which she vowed to watch Troo like a hawk. Two hawks. As many hawks as it takes to be sure the 10-year-old firecracker behaves herself. Sally's already exhausted from the responsibility and the summer's barely even started.

It doesn't help at all when Troo's nemesis escapes from reform school. Since Troo's the reason he was sent there in the first place, Sally knows "Greasy" Al Molinari will be stomping back to the West Side at any moment, just waiting for an opportunity to pound her little sister. Sally promised her Daddy she'd protect Troo and she will. No matter what it takes. And it's taking a lot. A whole, whole lot. Especially when a string of robberies unsettles the O'Malley's close-knit neighborhood. Everyone knows about Troo's fast fingers and no matter how many times Troo denies stealing from her neighbors, Sally's not sure she can believe her own sister. The cockamamie story Troo constructs to explain the burglaries makes it even more clear - it may be too late for anyone to save Troo O'Malley.

As if worrying about her wayward sister isn't enough to keep Sally up at night, she's still struggling with paralyzing flashbacks from last summer, grief over her stepfather's death, her mother's eternal disappointment, and, of course, finding time to romance a certain young soda jerk. Once again, the carefree days of summer are turning out to be anything but for a determined little girl named Sally O'Malley.

The thing I loved most about Whistling in the Dark is the same thing that endeared me to Good Graces: the entirely authentic, completely engaging voice of Sally O'Malley. Troo, too, of course - her irascible charm makes me laugh every time. The sisters prove what you already know if you've read Kagen's other books: the author's got a gift for bringing the voices of young girls to vivid life. Through their naivete, their unblemished take on life, Kagen looks back at the innocent days of yore, days that maybe weren't so innocent after all. This M.O. has the curious effect of making her stories both chilling and charming, a dichotomy I find difficult to resist. That's why I guarantee that as long as Kagen continues to write, I'll continue to read her. Especially if she keeps going back to those irresistible O'Malley sisters.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, depictions of underrage smoking, violence, intense situations and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Good Graces from the very generous Lesley Kagen. Thank you!

Monday, September 12, 2011

And I So Wanted to Love This ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Prized, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from the book's predecessor. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

I loved Birthmarked, the first book in Caragh M. O'Brien's dystopian YA series, so much that I couldn't wait for the sequel. So, when a publicist from Roaring Brook Press contacted me recently about reviewing the sequel, I squealed like a pig and nearly wet my pants in excitement said yes. Since the book doesn't come out until November 8, I made myself wait to read it. For like a month. Then, I caved. So much for self-restraint. I should know by now that I have none at all when it comes to books. Now, I have to answer the big question: Was Prized worth the wait?

Really? You thought I would tell you in the second paragraph of my review? Wrong! You'll just have to wait for it (Or, you could always skip to the bottom of this review, which I don't recommend at all, but as you can tell, patience is not one of my virtues either, so whatever. I won't judge).

Birthmarked ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, with 16-year-old Gaia Stone running into the wilderness, desperate to escape the cruel control of the Enclave. When Prized begins, it's days later - Gaia's outrun her pursuers, but is now lost in the wasteland, weak from exhaustion and starvation. Her infant sister grows frailer by the hour. If Gaia doesn't find help soon, they'll both die.

When a man on horseback rides up to her camp, offering to take Gaia to a safe place, she knows it's her last and only hope for survival. But when she arrives in Sylum, a small city run by a domineering woman called Matrarc Olivia, she begins to doubt that her new home is any better than her old one. She doesn't understand the matriarchal society where it's illegal for unmarried men and women to touch each other; where she, who's risked everything for her baby sister, is declared an "unfit mother;" and where dangerous community secrets are being kept from the people of Sylum. Gaia knows disobeying the Matrarc could mean never seeing her sister again, but she didn't fight the Enclave only to be enslaved to a different kind of tyrant, did she? With everything she holds dear hanging in the balance, Gaia must make a decision - conform or flee, once again, into the unforgiving wilderness. In Sylum, she has friends, a job, and the affections of several men; in the wasteland, she'll have nothing. Except freedom.

So, maybe I cursed Prized by wanting it so much. I don't know how else to explain my disappointment with the book. No matter how much I wanted to love it - and I did, I really, really did - the story seemed to annoy me more with each page I turned. A huge problem, for me anyway, is that much of the plot revolves around Gaia's love square (yes, three guys are fighting for her attention). The fact that she encourages each of them and still can't decide which to choose just gets irritating after awhile. I can understand her confusion, though, since none of the three had enough personality to stand out - I couldn't keep track of who was who either. Outside of Gaia's romantic issues, not a lot of other stuff really happens, even though there's plenty of built-in conflict that offers potential for intriguing subplots. The problems that do arise for Gaia seem to resolve themselves too easily, resulting in an unrealistic and unsatisfying storyline.

On the plus side, I found the idea of a Sylum-type community fascinating. Terrifying, but definitely interesting. Since so much of the people's lives revolve around childbirth, the story brings up pertinent questions about issues like abortion, adoption, a woman's right to choose, unfit mothers, gender roles, etc. Those sections made me think, much more so than all of Gaia's lover's quarrels.

So, back to my original question: Was Prized worth the wait? Mostly no, although I'm glad to know how Gaia's escape into the wilderness ended and, even though I didn't love Prized, I'm still anxious to see where the story goes next. I just wish this book offered more excitement, more depth, more suspense. More of what I loved about Birthmarked. I'm not ready to write off Caragh M. O'Brien just yet - in fact I'm looking forward to Promised, the final book in the trilogy. My enthusiasm's just a little more cautious now, that's all.

(Readalikes: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien and Delirium by Lauren Oliver)

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Prized from the generous folks at Roaring Brook Press (a division of Macmillan). Thank you!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Treasure Times Two

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: Although this review will not contain spoilers for Curse of the Blue Tattoo, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Remember this review, in which I gushed incessantly about Bloody Jack, the first book in L.A. Meyer's swashbuckling series starring plucky orphan girl "Jacky" Faber? Well, I hope you're ready for another cascade of ooey-gooey book love, because here it comes ...

Curse of the Blue Tattoo, the second book in the series, finds our saucy sailor girl run aground in Boston, Massachusetts. As much as she longs to stay on board the HMS Dolphin, she can't. Females on a ship bring bad luck, as every sailor knows, and a Royal Navy vessel's hardly the "appropriate" place for a young lady. The captain's given Jacky a new assignment, her most daunting yet - she's to refine her boorish ways at the exclusive Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls. Jacky wants no part of what's sure to be an insufferable snob fest, but she's willing to try. Especially since she aims to become the wife of a Naval officer, specifically her one true love, Jaimy Fletcher.

Jacky's no ninny. She's got battle scars, a blue anchor tattoo, even a Naval commision (revoked though it may now be) to prove her bravery. But none of that matters here in the plush world of high society, where Jacky's coarse manners quickly turn her into an outrageous spectacle, a laughingstock. Never before has such a lowborn heathen darkened the gleaming doorways of the school and the snooty Peabody girls aren't about to let Jacky forget it. Not one to duck a challenge, Jacky vows to learn how to "fight like a lady." But no matter how many curtsies she performs, no matter how many French verbs she conjugates, no matter how many pillows she embrodiers, some of the salty sailor maid remains. There's nothing for it then; the redoubtable Jacky Faber will have to fight her battles the same way she always has - her way.

Few sequels manage to surpass or even equal their predecessors the way Curse of the Blue Tattoo does. The book's success is mostly due to the return of the irrepresible Jacky Faber, whose voice rings so true it's impossible not to respond to its siren call, but it's also because Meyer keeps the action going, finding ever new and original scrapes into which young Jacky might fall. Our heroine keeps herself busy getting into said scrapes, ensuring that, above all, her adventures always provide a rollicking good read. It's not just the action, either, that makes these books so memorable. It's everything: vivid prose, colorful characters, playful dialogue and, above all, pitch-perfect tone/voice. Need I say more? I thought not.

(Readalikes: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer and other books in the series)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo/content, and violence

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Second Dark Life Adventure Much Like the First

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Rip Tide, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from Dark Life. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Ty Townsen's dealt with all manner of crazy things in the 15 years he's spent living under the sea. He's encountered everything from sharks to pirates to killer whales. But it's the discovery of a vessel chained to a sunken airplane that chills him to the bone. Especially when he realizes everyone in the mobile township is dead. An entire civilization has been murdered by a cold-blooded killer - one that may be more dangerous than anything Ty's ever come across in his wild ocean home.

Outraged by the attack on so many innocent people, Ty immediately starts asking questions. Even though he's getting no answers, his curiosity arouses attention. The wrong kind. It's not long before his parents and younger sister are kidnapped. Desperate to free his family, Ty vows to track down the murderer, no matter what the cost. Even if it means trusting a notorious thug. Even if it means swimming with bloodthirsty eels. Even if it means taking on the most powerful people in his world. With a pretty Topsider by his side to complicate things even further, Ty's newest adventure may be his most complicated. His most deadly.

Rip Tide, the second book in Kat Falls' watery YA dystopian series, picks up four months after its predecessor (Dark Life) ends. Like the first book, it plunges straight into the action, and never really lets up. While the constant adventure keeps things interesting, it completely upstages the other story elements, leaving characters underdeveloped, setting details unexplained, and dialogue clumsy. I have to give Falls props for originality, I just wish she would flesh out Ty's unique world a little more. After reading Rip Tide, I came to the exact same conclusion I did with Dark Life: "Younger readers probably won't care about all the details, they'll just love the non-stop action ... It may lack in some departments, but [Rip Tide] is nothing if not entertaining."

(Readalikes: Dark Life by Kat Falls; also a teensy bit like Ship Builder by Paolo Bacigalupi)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence and intense action

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Rip Tide from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Captivating To Die For Brings History to Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As Anne Boleyn's neighbor and best friend, Meg Wyatt knows her destiny lies in hitching her wagon to Anne's rising star. It's a duty she accepts willingly, even though it dooms her to be "always the setting ... never the stone" (215). With little to keep her in Kent, especially after her beloved Will announces his intention to enter the priesthood, 21-year-old Meg follows her friend to court. While Anne serves as a maiden of honor to Queen Katherine of Aragon, Meg spends her days schmoozing with lords and ladies, hoping to make connections that will aid her father as well as the doddering old man he's forcing her to marry. Her adventures at court help take Meg's mind off her impending marriage as well as Will's rejection, but only just.

The women's courtly fun takes a dangerous turn when Henry VIII's wandering eye lands on Anne. Flattered by his attention, she encourages his affection, setting her sights on nothing less than Queen Katherine's throne. Appalled by her friend's scheming, Meg tries reasoning with Anne, but to no avail. Soon the king's wrangling with religious leaders to dissolve his marriage to Katherine, Anne's designing her wedding gown, and Meg's doing her best to protect her friend. As the fickle crowd turns against Anne, life at court becomes as treacherous as a battlefield and it's up to Meg to discern friend from enemy.

Things don't get any easier, even with the crown resting upon Anne's pretty head. Especially then. As Anne helps to usher in the English Reformation, struggles to produce an heir, and finally, finds herself imprisoned in the Tower of London, Meg is there to comfort, support, and defend. Even while grappling with her own problems; even when her loyalty to Anne Boleyn makes her a target; even when it could cost her her own life, Meg Wyatt is there for her friend.

To Die For, a new historical novel by Sandra Byrd, tells the story of a remarkable friendship between two very different women. While the relationship between Anne and Meg is based in fact, it's mostly fiction. Still, it makes for a compelling tale. It's a testament to Byrd's skill that Meg's story is just as intriguing - if not more so - than Anne Boleyn's. In fact, Meg's level-headed narration allows us to feel any number of things about Anne (disgust, pity, incredulity, admiration, etc.) while remaining completely sympathetic to Meg's plight. The complexity of that friendship, mixed with colorful period detail, plenty of juicy plot twists, and a cast of fascinating characters makes To Die For a captivating historical novel not to be missed.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Nefertiti by Michelle Moran)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild sexual content/innuendo and violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of To Die For from the generous folks at Simon and Schuster and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Haunting Miles From Ordinary Another Heavy Hitter From Carol Lynch Williams

(Image from Indiebound)

Ordinary is working a summer job - without spending every second wondering if your mother will be okay in your absence. Ordinary is going to school - without agonizing over whether or not she'll show up in your classroom wearing only her pajamas. Ordinary is mother/daughter bonding time at home - without the interference of your dead grandaddy. Life for 14-year-old Lacey Mills is so out of whack, it's miles and miles and miles from ordinary.

Lacey has only one hope for this summer: to find a friend. Just one single, solitary friend. Thanks to her mother's illness, everyone at school already thinks Lacey's a freak. And no one will come near the Mills' house after what happened the night Laurel slept over. But, maybe, maybe, Lacey's new job at the Peace City Library will produce the kind of bosom buddy she longs to have in her life. And maybe her mother's first day as a cashier at Winn-Dixie will turn into weeks and months and years of a normal adult going to a normal job acting like a normal parent. Maybe.

As Lacey watches her mother get off the bus at Winn-Dixie, she's filled with trepidation and a cautious hope. The day holds such possibility for both of them. With gorgeous Aaron Ririe flirting with her on the bus, it seems like all Lacey's dreams are about to come true. Then it takes a terrifying turn for the worse and, once again, Lacey's wishes take a backseat to her mother's paranoia. This time, though, the stakes are much, much higher. This time, there's no one for Lacey to turn to. This time, she may not be able to save her mother. Or herself.

If you've read either of Carol Lynch Williams' previous books, you're familiar with the raw, provocative tone that marks her YA fiction. True to form, the author's newest - Miles From Ordinary - gives readers an honest, albeit disturbing, look at the realities of dealing with a parent's mental illness. It's impossible not to feel for vulnerable, abandoned Lacey, who's so trapped by responsibility and guilt that doing one simple thing for herself seems horrifyingly selfish. Her story's so gut-wrenching, so real, so haunting, that it stays with you long after you've closed this taut, thought-provoking novel. Williams doesn't write light, airy stories, so be prepared. Miles From Ordinary is a heavy-hitter. One you won't soon forget.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler and Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu and a little of Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for intense scenes/subject matter

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

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