Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Release Day Review: The League of Seven



The League of Seven (League of Seven, book one)
By Alan Gratz, illustrated by Brett Helquist
Expected publication August 19, 2014 by Starscape

Archie's parents have taught him the truth about their world - monsters exist and without the Septemberists and the League of Seven, those monsters would rule the world. So, when his parents are brainwashed and become pawns of an evil Mangleborn, Archie knows it's up to him to stop the evil from rising.

An ARC of this book showed up at my library a couple months ago and I set it aside, thinking it looked interesting and hoping I could find some time to read it before adding it to our giveaway books. I snuck in some reading time recently and bunkered down with this book.

I'll admit, this book didn't grab me right away. There is a lot of explanation in the first 50-60 pages that feels info-dumpy and definitely didn't leave me feeling interested in the story. I understand that Gratz is setting up his world - a steampunk, alternate version of 1870s America and that involves a lot of work. However, there are usually better ways to do it than just throwing a bunch of information at your readers. It's not as bad as it could be, which is something, but it kicked the book off on a bit of a slow start.

It's interesting because, despite my lack of enthusiasm for the first part of the book, when a colleague asked me about it, I explained the relevant bits and she said, "well, that sounds really cool." I think maybe this is what bothered me most about that first chunk of book - the premise here is really interesting and definitely has kid appeal, so to bog it down in all these details in the way that Gratz does just feels frustrating.

Once I got past that little bit at the beginning, though, this book definitely picked up the pace. The action is pretty much non-stop, which definitely works well for kids. More details of the interesting alternate world that Gratz has built come out in the story - all of which I found fascinating (I quite enjoy both steampunk and alternate history). I thought Gratz did a great job with the characters as well - I really empathized with Archie and I liked getting to know Hachi and Fergus. They are all characters with diverse back stories and I think, as a team, they work well together. I could certainly see myself reading more of their adventures. As you might imagine from the series title, there are sure to be a few more characters introduced in future volumes and I'm definitely looking forward to discovering them and their stories as well. One of the things I like about alternate history is the appearance of famous historical figures and I think Gratz does it well here, using names that will likely be familiar to kids. Like many recent reads for middle-graders, this book definitely has a science aspect that Common Core lovers will find appealing. Personally, I don't care so much, but I do like it when a book can spark an interest in a real world topic.

Overall, I think this book will definitely appeal to readers looking for a new adventure upon which to embark. I'll be looking forward to book two and be recommending this while I wait!

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Feral



Feral
By Holly Schindler
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by HarperTeen

Claire barely survived a brutal attack in Chicago, leaving her scared and angry. So, when her father's career takes him to Peculiar, Missouri, she thinks it's a fresh start for her as well. Except a teen girl has just shown up dead and Claire seems to be seeing things that no one else is - like a menacing fog of dead souls. Hungry dead souls.

The blurb for this book pitched it as "The Lovely Bones meets Black Swan" - there was no way I could resist that! Unfortunately, this book didn't live up to those expectations for me.

The majority of the time I spent reading this book, it just felt strange. In fact, that's what I kept telling people as I read - "this book is weird." And it is. Now that I've finished it, it's much clearer to me what Schindler was trying to do - without giving spoilers, think along the lines of Charm & Strange - but with a title like that for comparison, this book just does not succeed at its goal.

I never connected with Claire. On the one hand, I can understand her anger after the attack. On the other, it seemed very misplaced to me and I never felt like she wanted to give other people a chance. It's hard for me to want to continue with a book if I can't understand where the main character is coming from - not impossible, but difficult. And Claire wasn't the only character I found too strange to relate to - I still couldn't explain Becca to you, even after finishing the book. The weird tensions that occur between characters I guess are supposed to all be explained away by the ending, but while they're happening, they're uncomfortable and don't feel true to life at all.

Additionally, the feral cats. Obviously where the book gets its title from, I kept waiting to discover their significance. I'm still waiting. Authors, don't just include a random plot element that you think sounds cool without actually giving it meaning - it's frustrating when that meaning never unveils itself.

The first part of this book is plain old not interesting - it's full of characters I don't understand with weird vibes surrounding them and not a lot of action. When the action finally starts to amp up, it's just all so strange. It just didn't work for me. Maybe other readers won't find the same flaws I did, but this book just wasn't successful at what it set out to do.

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: Nuts to You



Nuts to You
By Lynne Rae Perkins
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Greenwillow

Jed is a very special squirrel. He has two of the best friends one could ever ask for. But when Jed is snatched up by a hawk, he never expects them to go after him. Lucky for him, his friends are determined and resourceful. When the three friends end up uncovering a mystery that presents a danger to their homes, they must work together to protect everyone they love.

I don't know why I keep forcing myself to read animal fantasy - it's just not my style. Maybe it's because some of surprised me and become among my favorite books. Maybe it's because I've enjoyed them more in my recent past. Maybe it's because they're extremely popular with middle grade readers and I'm trying to read more middle grade books.

Whatever the reason, I found myself breezing through this upcoming title recently. Perkins is a Newbery Award winning author, so this book was already on my radar when I saw it pop up on Edelweiss. I figured it would be a quick read (the e-galley is just around 100 pages) and it features illustrations by the author, so I decided to just plow through it.

That probably sounds like I didn't enjoy it, and that's not quite true. Though I'm still pretty convinced that animal fantasy is not my thing, I thought this was a pretty cute story for the most part. I like that Perkins is presenting it as a tale told directly to her by a squirrel, which she has translated and annotated for humans to enjoy and learn from. This book is billed as The Incredible Journey with squirrels and I think it's a pretty apt description, though our three main heroes do not spend a huge amount of time apart (I seem to remember each of the animals in Journey having a little solo adventure). I enjoyed that they encountered new kinds of squirrels, though that squirrel dialect was quite difficult to read. I loved the innovation the squirrels use when they want to rescue their friends and families at the end - very smart, and definitely teaches kids how to use your strengths. I did feel that the message got a little heavy towards the end, which pulled me out of the story a bit. I'm not sure if kids will have the same problem, but it was distracting for me.

Overall, not really my kind of book, though I can see its appeal and think it definitely has potential as a great read-aloud.

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Fiendish



Fiendish
By Brenna Yovanoff
Expected publication August 14, 2014 by Razorbill

Clementine spent ten years of her life trapped in a root cellar. The world she emerges into is not the one she left, and it seems as if no one remembers who she is. In addition, she feels drawn to the boy who rescued her, even though her cousin tells her he is no good. When strange magic starts popping up around town, Clementine can't help but wonder if it's because she's out in the world again.

Yovanoff is an author who has intrigued me for a number of years - I've seen her books come out and have definitely been interested but have never found the time to pick one up. I spotted this on Edelweiss and requested, figuring it was long past time to give her a shot. And, of course, I'm always looking for more horror novels.

It must be me. I think maybe I just need to stop expecting books to creep me out. Every book I've read lately that I've hoped would do the trick just hasn't, so I'm starting to think that maybe I'm just not creeped out by books. Certainly, Yovanoff has got some creepy stuff here - I mean, for starters, her heroine is locked in a root cellar for ten years and is surrounded by a magic that makes everyone forget she ever existed. There are different characters with different kinds of humors - that means they can affect different elements. There are fiends - a kind of creature that I really knew nothing about before reading this book. There is plenty here to creep out your average reader.

In addition, Yovanoff's writing style works exceptionally well for this kind of horror story. She really takes her time to create an unsettling atmosphere, one in which neighbors no longer trust neighbors and enlisting the help of fiends suddenly seems like your most viable option. I loved her descriptions - it's easy to see why she and Maggie Stiefvater probably work well together as critique partners.

The characters are quite interesting as well, though I wished we had gotten to spend some more time with some of the secondary ones (Shiny, Rae, Davenport). I liked Clementine well enough and the romance that developed felt expected but not in a bad way. I think the book could have worked without it also, but so be it.

For me, it started to drag a bit towards the end, as it seemed quite obvious how everything was going to play out, but that may not be the case for most readers. I can definitely recommend this book for readers looking for something a bit strange and a bit creepy.

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish



The Fourteenth Goldfish
By Jennifer L. Holm
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Ellie wishes things would stay the same. But one day, when a strange boy shows up, she begins to wonder if change is always a bad thing. Because that strange boy looks an awful lot like her grandfather, a scientist who's been on a quest for immortality. Could it be he's discovered the secret?

I requested this digital galley because Jenni Holm. I mean, really. I adore her. Her books are pretty much always winners for me (I've yet to read them all, a tragedy I really should remedy soon) and she's a lovely person in real life as well (I've seen her speak a few times). So, when I knew she had a new book coming out, I eagerly requested the galley, knowing I'd probably enjoy it and knowing it would get some Newbery buzz.

I think I was right on both accounts. This is a short, quick read, packed with fun characters and really fascinating science. I really enjoyed it, and I've already seen it being thrown around as a Newbery contender. What I enjoyed most about this is that Holm manages to cover quite a few topics in a small number of pages - and she doesn't short any of them either. This book addresses science and the role it should play in our everyday lives, families and how they change, the difficulties of growing up and watching things change around you, and the importance of believing. I'm convinced that Holm is one of the best and most important middle-grade authors currently working - I hope she continues to write for many years to come.

Ellie has a great voice - I fell in love with her almost instantly, and I think middle-grade readers will find her easy to relate to as well. I absolutely loved the other characters, also, particularly Melvin. What a delight he was! My one quibble is that I found it quite difficult to believe that Ellie, by all indications a pretty typical 11-year-old, had never heard of most of the scientists her grandfather references. I don't remember whether or not I knew of them all when I was her age, but it did make me pause for a moment (particularly Marie Curie).

As I said, I loved that Holm was able to cover such a wide variety of topics and still give them each enough page time to merit their inclusion. This is a great book to ignite discussion and I think many teachers are going to enjoy discovering and sharing this one. I also really appreciated Holm's inclusion of suggestions for further research. This is another science-focused book that I think will definitely spark a desire to learn more about the facts. I'll be keeping my eyes open for discussion of this one in mock Newbery groups.

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Courage for Beginners



Courage for Beginners
By Karen Harrington
Expected publication August 12, 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Mysti Murphy's life just got a lot more complicated. Her father is in the hospital and her mother never leaves the house because of the Secret No One Talks About, so getting to school and getting groceries become much more difficult tasks. In addition, her best friend Anibal has decided he wants to be a hipster this year - with no room in his plan for Mysti. Will Mysti find the courage to make it through the year?

Harrington made a big splash with her debut last year, Sure Signs of Crazy. Many of my coworkers read and loved the novel, though I haven't had a chance to read it yet. At ALA Midwinter, the publisher enthusiastically recommended her newest title and handed me a galley. She also informed me that Harrington is a Texas author, something I didn't know previously. I might have figured it out after reading this book, though.

I've had a string of middle-grade titles that I've been less than enthusiastic about recently, so I'm very pleased to be able to say I really enjoyed this book. My enjoyment of this book most heavily stems from the strength of its main character, Mysti. She is fantastic. She reminds me a lot of myself - she's smart and funny and has very few friends and, when her father has an accident, feels like she must be the responsible one in her family. My situation is not exactly the same, but I definitely felt a lot of pressure to be successful and responsible for the sake of my family. She is the kind of character for which you just root so hard. I wanted everything to just come together for her.

Everything about this book just felt so real - the characters, obviously (not just Mysti, but everyone), but also the setting (this book is very TEXAS), and the events that occur. Anibal's hipster experiment felt exactly like something a 12-year-old kid might do, one who's desperate to form a new identity for himself and attract a certain kind of girl. It was heartbreaking to watch Mysti stand by and defend him when it was clear that he was changing completely - and not for the better. It all just felt so achingly real. I think kids will definitely be able to relate.

My one major issue with the book is that no one gets involved regarding the mother's agoraphobia. Apparently, no one at the hospital questions why she doesn't visit her husband (who's in a coma) and no one at Mysti or her sister's school questions why they never see their mother. Something about it just felt a bit unlikely and concerning to me. Other than that one stumbling block, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can easily see it being a big hit this summer.

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

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Anybody Shining



Anybody Shining
By Frances O'Roark Dowell
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Arie Mae just knows that her cousin in Raleigh is destined to be her own true friend - now she just has to convince cousin Caroline of that truth. So, she sets out on a letter-writing campaign, filling Caroline in on all the goings-on of her small Appalachian town. But what is Caroline never writes back? And what of the group of children just arrived from Baltimore - might Arie Mae find a true friend among them?

This book caught my eye for two reasons - it's told through letters (mostly) and it takes place in 1920s Appalachia. I've a big fan of epistolary novels and I love historical fiction, so I knew I'd be giving this one a try.

While for the most part I enjoyed this book, I'm a bit confused about it. My first point of confusion is with the way it's told - each chapter begins and ends with snippets from the letters that Arie Mae is writing to her cousin Caroline. However, the middles of the chapters don't really feel like they couldn't be part of the letters as well, so it just seemed confusing to write it this way. The only difference between the letters and the parts that aren't letters is the font - at least, this is the only difference I really noticed.

My next point of confusion is Arie Mae's persistence in writing to someone she's never met and who never writes back. Maybe she's just a much more determined child than I (my penpals never lasted more than a few letters, despite my strong desire to have friends from all over the world), but it just didn't make sense to me. It almost seems like a strange fixation for Arie Mae to write Caroline. I realize that the author is probably trying to show the power of words to heal familial wounds or something along those lines, but it just didn't sit right with me.

Lastly, my confusion about the book as a whole - nothing much really happens. I mean, yes, there is a bit about a boy Arie Mae meets who becomes ill after an adventure they take together, and there's another little bit about a potential ghost, but really this is more of a quiet, character-driven novel. I'm not sure how much of a call there is for those kinds of novels for the middle-grade set - I'm sure there are kids interested in reading simple stories of other children's lives, but those don't seem to be the kinds of books flying off our shelves. Historical fiction is often a harder sell, as well, so I struggle with finding an audience for this book. For the right reader, it's definitely a sweet little read, but it will take some work to find that reader.

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