Friday, December 19, 2014

Capsule Reviews

Once again, I find myself with a handful of books to review that I don't have terribly much to say about. Add the fact that I'm trying to clear out my backlog of reviews before the end of the year and you have another set of capsule reviews!

Saving Lucas Biggs
By Marisa de los Santos and David Teague
Published 2014 by HarperCollins

Time travel books usually make my head hurt if I think about them too much, but I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit. I thought the writing was quite good - the descriptions were lovely and the storytelling flowed very naturally. There is a lot happening in this book, but I never got lost or confused. The book moves at a good pace, flashing back and forth in time in a way that makes sense and propels the story along. I think this is also a great book for discussion, touching upon many topics and issues that are thought-provoking.

Uncommon Criminals (Heist Society, book two)
By Ally Carter, read by Angela Dawe

Published 2011 by Brilliance Audio

I read the first book in this series last spring and have been anxious to get back to it. Since I was trying to adhere to my no library books rule this year, I downloaded the audio version and gave it a listen. Once again, I discovered that I probably shouldn't switch versions partway through - I had a harder time recalling what happened in the first book then I think I would have otherwise. But, once I remembered what had happened, I enjoyed this as much as the first. I love the characters, and I liked the mystery even better in this one. I'm looking forward to picking up the rest of the series eventually, though I'll probably go back to print.

Cruel Beauty
By Rosamund Hodge, read by Elizabeth Knowelden
Published 2014 by Harper Audio

I am always game for a fairy tale retelling, so I downloaded this audiobook, despite a less-than-positive review from a friend. Ultimately, I mostly agreed with her. I thought the mythology was a bit much, which is probably a first for me. It seemed like Hodge tried to cram too many different stories into one book and it just didn't work for me. Additionally, I don't think Nyx's motivations for falling in love with both men were ever explained well and it just didn't work for me. I don't think the worldbuilding was strong enough, either - I never had a true sense of how Nyx's world worked. I was also pretty disappointed in the ending. Hodge has another fairy tale-inspired book coming out next year; I'll probably give it a shot, but I don't have high hopes.

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (Frank Einstein, book one)
By Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Brian Biggs
Published 2014 by Amulet Books

An ARC of this showed up at the library, so I figured I'd give it a read to have a better sense for recommending it to kids. Unfortunately, Scieszka's books don't really circulate that well in our library, so I'm not sure how much success this book will see. I thought it was cute and definitely has great kid appeal - a science theme (which is very in right now) and a lot of humor, plus liberal illustrations. Unfortunately, it wasn't really as funny as I expected it to be and I found most of the illustrations distracting rather than enhancing. I also thought the plot was mostly pretty boring and Frank was actually a pretty obnoxious character. I don't think I'll be reading book two, but I hope some kids find and enjoy this story.

Twelve Kinds of Ice
By Ellen Bryan Obed, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
Published 2012 by HMH Books for Young Readers

When this book first came out, several people mentioned it in the same breath as the Newbery Award. I was definitely intrigued. Despite its short length, I didn't pick it up until recently - unfortunately as I was weeding it from our collection. It is a lovely book, one that speaks particularly to me as a native New Englander (though one that doesn't particularly enjoy winter). I loved how evocative Obed's prose was and I can see why people discussed this for the Newbery - every word is chosen with absolute precision, adding up to a beautiful and enchanting whole. The illustrations are lovely as well. Unfortunately, this is a book with limited appeal to children; I can see it perhaps being picked up by fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder - it has that same sense of nostalgia. It's a book I enjoyed, but one that didn't see much success with my patrons.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review: Lord and Lady Bunny - Almost Royalty!

Lord and Lady Bunny - Almost Royalty!
By Polly Horvath, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Published 2014 by Schwartz & Wade

Madeleine desperately wants to save money for college but, big surprise, her hippie parents are broke. So, when they unexpectedly inherit a sweets shoppe in England, the family sets sail. Never one to miss an adventure, Mrs. Bunny comes along for the trip, dragging Mr. Bunny with her.

Okay, confession: I was looking forward to this book so much that I broke my resolution for the year so I could read it. Yes, I checked it out from the library. I just couldn't resist! I had unexpectedly loved the first book so much that it simply felt too unfair to deprive myself of the sure-to-be-delightful sequel!

Like I said, I was completely taken aback by how much I enjoyed the first book. Talking animals are most decidedly not my thing but there was something oddly charming about Mr. and Mrs. Bunny and their human friends that I completely fell for. Perhaps my enthusiasm for this book was too great, though - for I didn't love it as much as the first. Maybe the oddball charm of the first is something best experienced for the first time - after all, by the second time, you're expecting it, aren't you? Don't get me wrong, I still adored this book, just not quite as much as the first.

I think my disappointment came from the humans storyline. In the first book, Madeleine's parents are missing and she sets out to rescue them, with the help of the intrepid detective Bunnys. In this book, the story of Madeleine and her parents just felt weaker. I found myself eagerly anticipating the next chapter with the Bunnys and their quest for titles and royalty and fame and not caring quite so much about Madeleine and her parents. Perhaps it's partly because her parents have been set up as pretty neglectful people. Perhaps it's just that I adore the Bunnys so. Whatever the reason, I didn't find this book quite as strong as the first.

Regardless, I still enjoyed the book tremendously. It's quite amusing and definitely appealing for the oddball in me. I will be on the lookout for further adventures with the Bunnys!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: A Snicker of Magic

A Snicker of Magic
By Natalie Lloyd
Published 2014 by Scholastic

Felicity hopes that moving to Midnight Gulch will mean good things for her family. She longs to know a place she can call home: her mother was born to wander and Felicity has had to tag along. Felicity sees words everywhere and the words she sees in Midnight Gulch give her hope. But she'll have to figure out how to return the magic to the town and heal her mother's broken heart.

This book got tons of buzz at the beginning of the year and I was pleased to score an ARC at ALA Midwinter. Unfortunately, I didn't find the time to read it prior to publication, though I did read it soon after. This book is still generating some buzz - it's been thrown around as a potential Newbery contender, something that I had heard even before the book was published. All of this made me very interested in reading it.

Here's what I think: I found the book charming, which surprised me a little. It's a very particular kind of book: quirky, with playful language and a spunky heroine. This has been hit or miss for me in the past, so I wasn't sure what to expect this time around. For the most part, I thought Felicity was a great character. I enjoyed reading about her and getting to know her, as well as the other members of her family. There were quite a lot of characters, though, and it did get a bit much at times.

Where I think the book will be most divisive is the language - Felicity has a very unique way of seeing and describing the world. For me, the unique language worked. It really helped to create and maintain the magical atmosphere that I think Lloyd was going for. However, I can easily see other readers being irritated with the language and prose throughout. It's interesting because it worked well for me in this book but a different book (that I've yet to review) also featured very unique language and it didn't work for me at all.

The plot also goes a little out of control for a bit and the ending is a bit convenient, but I don't think these things will matter to kids. In fact, looking at the circulation in my library, this book has barely been on the shelves since we got it - kids are definitely interested in this one. Overall, I thought this was a lovely read, mostly because of the endearing characters and the message about the power of words. I'll be happy to recommend this to readers in the future.

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review: More Than This

More Than This
By Patrick Ness
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press

Seth drowned. He knows this, he remembers it. And yet, he's alive. Or is he? He's someplace, someplace that seems familiar, but just a little off. Where is he? And what does it mean?

Patrick Ness is one of my favorite writers. If you haven't read the Chaos Walking series, please do it. It will destroy you, but it's so, so worth it. In fact, everything of Ness' that I've read will pretty much destroy you, with this book perhaps being the exception. I made a friend with one of the Candlewick reps at ALA Midwinter in 2013 and she let me know that Ness had a new book publishing that year and they'd have ARCs at Annual and he'd be there, so it was one of the first things to go on my agenda as I planned my Annual conference in 2013.

As you can imagine, this means that I wanted to love this book. I had a signed ARC from one of my favorite authors for a book I'd been anticipating for months. And I liked it. But I didn't love it.

Writing this review at such a remove from reading the book itself is not great for me because I'm finding it more difficult to remember why I felt mostly ambivalent about this book. But I shall try. I think my problems actually started with Seth - I never really connected with him. Yes, his emotions are there on the page but, unlike with other Ness characters, I felt them at a distance. I think I became more interested in the book after the introduction of the other characters - Tomasz and Regine. I felt them more fully than Seth, which is not what I think Ness intended.

Maybe this book was just not the book for me. It's very philosophical and cerebral, more so than most of what I read. While I certainly relish a book that makes me think, sometimes I find that challenge frustrating. I think that's what happened here. Ness has created this story to ask some very big and complicated questions, which is fine and good, but what I really wanted was a great story. I feel almost like the story took a backseat to the ponderings and questioning that Ness is encouraging readers to engage in.

I've talked about ambiguous endings in the past and my opinion of them is pretty ambiguous - sometimes I love them, sometimes I don't. This was a situation when I wanted a more definitive answer. Once again, I completely understand that the not knowing is precisely what Ness was going for, but it's not what I, as the reader, wanted from the book.

I can definitely see this book having its legions of fans and, perhaps, actual young-adult me would have enjoyed this more than grown-up me did. Regardless, Ness is one of the most brilliant authors writing today, so I'll keep eagerly anticipating whatever he decides to do next and treasuring my signed copy of my least favorite of his books because I still think he's that bloody brilliant.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: The Cheshire Cheese Cat

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale
By Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright , read by Katherine Kellgren and Robin Sachs
Published 2012 by Listening Library

Skilley longs for the comfort of a roof over his head and the ease of meals provided for him, so when he hears that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is in need of a mouser, he presents himself for the job. In order to keep his secret, though, Skilley soon finds himself in cahoots with a resident mouse.

Like many of my audiobook downloads, this came about mostly through a whim, though I'm getting to the point where I'll listen to pretty much anything read by Katherine Kellgren.

This book reminded me quite a bit of A Nest for Celeste - it features a historical figure that may or may not be familiar to most kids (in this case, Charles Dickens), but tells that person's story secondary to the story of an animal in their world. If the enduring popularity of Ben and Me by Robert Lawson is any indication, this is a pretty good formula for finding an audience of kid readers. I think maybe part of this is the greater freedom an author might feel when writing an animal character. We don't REALLY know what animals would be like if they could talk, and we don't know everything about how they interact in our world, so there's a little more room to play, to create something outlandish and particular that might not work if that character were human. The characters in this book were fun to read about, and I think they definitely have kid appeal.

Perhaps the best thing about this book for me was the language. I've adored some of Deedy's picture books, so I expected that this would be pleasant, but the language really shines, perhaps particularly so in the audio version. Then again, everything probably sounds lovely in Kellgren's voice, but I really think the turns of phrase in this novel are excellent.

Listening to the audio version, I missed out the illustrations by Barry Moser, but I assume they're quite lovely. Overall, I found this a delightful historical fiction tale that will definitely appeal to animal lovers.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

By Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Redpath Ohi
Published 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
I mean, do I really have to review this book? Kids are going to think this is absolutely hilarious. In fact, I find it hard to imagine reading this book in storytime. I don't think I'd be able to get through a single page without the kids cracking up. That being said, this book is a lot of fun and definitely has tons of kid appeal. Has anyone shared this in storytime? I'd love to hear how it went!

By Sandra J. Howatt, illustrated by Joyce Wan
Published 2014 by Beach Lane Books
This is a perfectly simple and sweet book to share at bedtime. Different animals are shown in their habitats settling down for the night. The rhythm is gentle and lulling and the illustrations will definitely make you sleepy. They are soft and lovely. I really appreciated the vocabulary used in this book - it's a little beyond what you see in a typical bedtime book. This book is just a delight - soothing and beautiful. Definitely one to share and a great gift for frazzled parents looking for something to help their kids to sleep.

Monster Needs His Sleep
By Paul Czajak, illustrated by Wendy Grieb
Published 2014 by Scarletta Kids
I absolutely adored the first adventure with Monster so I was thrilled to see him return for this title. I snatched it up as soon as I spotted it arrive at the library and read it instantly. Monster is a little bit afraid of the dark but if he never goes to bed, then he never has to worry. Of course, as you and I know, Monster needs his sleep and he won't be able to avoid bedtime forever. Will Monster get to bed without being afraid? I don't think this was as good as Monster's first book, but it's still a cute story with an even cuter monster star. I'll look forward to another outing with Monster.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: Ruins

Ruins (Partials, book three)
By Dan Wells
Published 2014 by Balzer + Bray

WARNING: There may be spoilers ahead. Read my reviews of books one and two.

Kira is doing everything in her power to prevent a war from destroying what little is left of civilization. Unfortunately, with every day that passes, it seems like doing her best is not enough. Kira is going to seize her last chance and hope that people will listen to her - or she'll die trying.

I've been singing the praises of this series since I read an ARC of book one, so I was desperate to see how it all would end. Though the final book was released in my year of no library books, I made an exception - my fiance was reading the series and, if we could both finish the book in one checkout period, I'd be allowed to read it. I know, I know - it's cheating and trust me, I felt guilty. But I also needed to know how this series would end!

In short, I loved the ending. Everything that I had loved about the series was still there and still on point in book three. I thought Wells wrapped everything up in a believable fashion, if a bit too tidy for a dystopian series. Kira is still the kick-butt heroine I fell in love with in book one. The multiple storylines that started in book two continue here, and continue to help the novel keep up a relentless pace. Once again, I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could, eager to know what would happen. I can understand that some readers don't enjoy this kind of storytelling - the ping-ponging between different sets of characters and narratives. Personally, I love it. It keeps me from getting bored with the minutiae of any one storyline and forces me to remember all the characters, not just one or two. And again, Wells manages to balance the action with more thoughtful scenes that encourage readers to question and think. Though the actual ending was mostly unsurprising, I enjoyed it. I liked how Wells wrapped up the storylines.

As a whole, I think this series is brilliant, and I love recommending it to readers. I will definitely continue to do so and I will wait to see what Wells has is store for readers next.