Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review: Omega City

Omega City (Omega City, book one)
By Diana Peterfreund
Expected publication April 28, 2015 by Balzer + Bray

Gillian's dad is a little bit out there - he believes in some conspiracy theories and occasionally, her family has had to go off the grid when he thinks that someone if after him or his research. Most of his research has focused on one man - Dr. Aloysius Underberg, a rocket scientist during the Cold War. Gillian shares some of her dad's beliefs, so when she finds a missing page from Dr. Underberg's diary, she's convinced that she can restore his reputation. The missing page sends her and her friends on a crazy treasure hunt - and they're not the only ones looking for Dr. Underberg's secrets. Has Gillian put her friends' lives at risk for nothing? Or will they uncover the truth?

This is Peterfreund's first foray into middle-grade territory and, as I've enjoyed her YA offerings and am always looking for new middle-grade reads, I wanted to give it a shot. I was pleased to see it available for download, so I finished it up just prior to publication.

I must admit I'm a bit disappointed in this book. I had pretty high expectations - as I said, I've quite enjoyed her YA titles, so I had reason to believe this book would be excellent as well. Unfortunately, this book is a bit more middle of the road for me. What I think this book excels at, particularly for its target audience, is the action and tension. The characters find themselves in perilous situation after perilous situation pretty much constantly throughout the book, leaving readers wondering how they'll possibly escape each new dangerous encounter. The tension is high as they are pursued through a dark and dangerous underground city. Will they find the proof they need to restore Gillian's dad's reputation? Or will they end up trapped in Omega City forever? And just who is pursuing them, and why? It is definitely action-packed and edge-of-your-seat stuff.

But it also gets a bit tedious. I mean, it is a middle-grade novel, so in all likelihood, they're going to be just fine. So, for me, the tension was not quite so high. Additionally, what I really missed here was characterization. Gillian is the narrator and, while she certainly has a personality, I felt like it could have been developed a bit more. The same can be said of the secondary characters - I mean, I didn't really buy that Nate wouldn't make them abandon their mission at the first sign of danger, so a clearer explanation of his motivations would have been helpful. That being said, I think the conspiracy theory stuff is pretty cool, though I do wonder how much of that will be lost on the target audience (I don't remember being aware of any conspiracy theories when I was 10-14 and some of the ones incorporated here are a bit more obscure). I liked the humor and pop culture stuff that was woven in, and the science was all pretty interesting.

This is listed as the first in a series, and I'm interested in checking out the next book. I imagine we'll find out more about the shadowy group trying to destroy evidence of Underberg's inventions. Actually, I'm just now wondering if this book won't make some kids paranoid, with its government cover-ups and whatnot. This is a decent enough adventure story that I imagine it could be pretty popular, though I hoped for a little more. I'll still be recommending it, particularly over the summer.

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Review: Fork-Tongue Charmers

Fork-Tongue Charmers (Luck Uglies, book two)
By Paul Durham
Published 2015 by HarperCollins

Read my review of book one here.

Though Rye O'Chanter now at least knows who her father is, that knowledge is certainly not making her life any easier. Her family has been declared outlaws by a sinister new lawman and, in order to survive, they must relocate to the Isle of Pest. But Pest holds secrets of its own - more secrets about Rye's family - and soon, Rye finds herself in the middle of another terrifying and life-threatening adventure.

I read the first book just a few short months ago (and named it our Cybils winner!) and was thrilled to discover that the sequel would be released soon. One of the benefits of changing up my reading resolution is getting to keep up with series as they're released, and I definitely took advantage of that here.

I almost feel like you could just read my review of book one again and you'd know how I feel about book two. I absolutely love these characters. Rye's frustrating and anxiety-inducing pigheadedness is once again present in this volume and, of course, it leads her into some trouble. But she makes these stubborn decisions out of the love and goodness in her heart, so it's pretty difficult to fault her for them. Though I was glad that Folly and Quinn accompanied Rye to Pest, it did feel a bit too convenient. Durham still manages to introduce some local characters in Pest and I like both Folly and Quinn immensely as well, but it just seemed a bit of a plot contrivance for them to abandon their families and accompany Rye's.

I think Durham does a nice job creating a new and intriguing environment on Pest as well - I particularly enjoyed the scene with the shellycoats. Taking the characters to a new location was a great way to introduce more backstory about Rye's family and their personal history with the Luck Uglies. Once again, I liked that Durham didn't shy away from the dark stuff - the villain is, again, pretty awful, and that personal history with the Luck Uglies I mentioned is full of some not-nice stuff.

Again, Durham manages to wrap up the story in one volume while still connecting it to the first. I think this is a great way to write a series that will keep kids engaged, but also won't completely alienate readers who skip around within the series. I'm very much looking forward to more volumes in this series - I could read about these characters all day (and I'm still waiting for more with Quinn)!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Picture Book Saturday

Rex Wrecks It!
By Ben Clanton
Published 2014 by Candlewick Press
I've enjoyed Clanton's books before and I almost never resist a dinosaur on the cover, so obviously I read this one when it arrived at our library. It's a story that's been done before - Rex the dinosaur always wrecks whatever his friends are playing with and they're sick of it - but it's very simple and still a cute story. In the end, the friends figure out how to work together so that everyone is happy. The simplicity of the text here makes it perfect for a toddler time and they'll love the repetition of the titular phrase.

Shh! We Have a Plan
By Chris Haughton
Published 2014 by Walker
I saw this one getting some attention for an award, so I was eager to see it for myself when it finally arrived at our library. Four friends want to catch a bird and they come up with a variety of plans to do so. Of course, none of their plans work out until the littlest friend takes a shot - and then success! Quite honestly, I expected more from this book. Don't get me wrong - it's fun and I love the use of the dark blues and blacks throughout the illustrations. But I wasn't overwhelmingly impressed with the story. That being said, I'm pretty sure kids will really like this one for its silliness.

Little Owl's Day
By Divya Srinivasan
Published 2014 by Viking Books for Young Readers
This is a companion book to Little Owl's Night and I am absolutely enchanted by Srinivasan's illustrations, so I was delighted to see it arrive. Little Owl one day wakes up early and discovers that the forest he knows so well during the night is completely different in daylight. So, he sets off to explore this new version of the forest. It's a simple story, but I like the variety of animals Owl encounters and, as I said, I love the illustrations. I think this would be great in storytime.

Just Right for Two
By Tracey Corderoy, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw
Published 2014 by Nosy Crow
Dog keeps all his special things in a suitcase and it's just right. But when Mouse comes along, Dog discovers something he's been missing. Another story that's been done about a million times before, but still just as sweet. Dog and Mouse become friends by sharing their special things, which is a cute lesson for young ones. The illustrations are very sweet and I think this would be a good fit with other stories about friendship.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, book two)
By Rachel Hartman
Published 2015 by Random House Children's Books

To read my review of book one, go here.

Goredd has lived in an uneasy peace for all of Seraphina's life but, after recent events, it seems the peace will be no more. Knowing that she is specially poised to play a role in avoiding a truly catastrophic war, Seraphina sets out to unite her people and hopefully save her home.

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, so I happily put my name on the holds list as soon as possible. I knew I probably wouldn't be in for a quick read, but I very much looked forward to enjoying this one.

I definitely did. Everything I loved about the first book was at play again here - it's an epic fantasy with an extremely rich and complex world and mythos. I still love what Hartman's done with the dragons - I find them fascinating. I liked that other parts of dragon society are explored in this volume, and I particularly enjoyed the time spent among the quigutls - an area previously unexplored.

What I loved most is, I think, what many other people have been complaining about but what I've looked forward to since finishing book one - the denizens of Seraphina's garden. Yes, she spends an extremely long time searching for and meeting the inhabitants of her garden in the real world. But I found them all fascinating, and I loved seeing how the version of them she had in her head related to them in real life. Ooh, and Jannoula - what an incredibly fascinating character Hartman created in her! I am amazed at the creativity that has clearly birthed all these unique and astounding characters. I'm impressed that I grew to care for them as deeply as Seraphina in just one novel and I mourned the loss of some right along with her. I was thrilled to spend the time alongside Seraphina finding the half-dragons and attempting to unite them.

But, what I really missed was the relationship with Kiggs. As Seraphina spends the majority of this book travelling about in her efforts to unite the ityasaari, she doesn't spend much time with Kiggs. The time that they do spend together doesn't feel quite the same as it did in the first book - their banter and longing mostly seems to be missing. Additionally, I thought the little plot twist with Glisselda made Seraphina into a bit of a Mary Sue - it felt out of place for me. In the end, I found the wrap-up of the romance supremely unsatisfying - I had too many questions. I think I can see what Hartman was trying to do with it, but I wanted more of Kiggs and Seraphina together, the way they were.

Overall, then, I loved the characters and plot, but I missed the romance (something I never thought I'd say). I'm sad that this is only a duology, but I hope Hartman will take advantage of the rich world she's created here and return, even if it is with other characters.

A quick aside here: today is my 4-year blogiversary! (It feels like much longer - haha!) I have written almost 1000 posts here. Any ideas for what specialness I should do for my 1000th post?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review: This Shattered World

This Shattered World (Starbound, book two)
By Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Published 2014 by Disney-Hyperion

Read my review of book one here.

Jubilee Chase is one of the youngest and fiercest soldiers stationed on Avon - and, so far, the only one immune to the Fury. Flynn Cormac is a native to Avon and the brother of its most infamous rebel, but Flynn longs to find another way. A split second decision brings Jubilee and Flynn on a collision course with consequences not just for Avon, but for the entire Galactic Council.

So, despite my deep distrust of all things set in space, I read and quite enjoyed the first book in the series. My fiance recently listened to the first book on audio, so when I checked out the next book for him to read, I decided to read it as well.

I was particularly interested to see how the series would work, being set in the same universe as the first but featuring new characters. While it initially took me a while to warm up to these new characters, I really liked this approach. It has worked for me in a few other series I've enjoyed (Diana Peterfreund's For Darkness Shows the Stars, Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth), so I'm not surprised to have enjoyed it here. It makes all the more exciting that moment when the characters from previous books make their appearance in the new book. I thought it was handled particularly well here - I was actually cheering out loud!

Anyway, I actually think the story here is stronger than that of book one. I felt that book one focused a lot on the star-crossed romance (which I didn't really buy into - the star-crossed part, not the romance part) and the others parts of the plot were secondary. Here, I really enjoyed the main storyline - Flynn's desperate attempt to solve the mystery of his planet's delay and what that means for Lee. I really enjoyed reading about both sides of the story and it was heartbreaking to see how far the rebels were willing to go to bring justice to their cause. I think part of the reason why this book is stronger is because it builds on the foundation of book one, deepening the conspiracy and amping up for what is sure to be a catastrophic finale. I am definitely looking forward to book three.

Once again, I think the unique qualities of the world created here are interesting. I'm starting to wonder if maybe I don't hate space as much as I thought I did. Like I said, I'm very much looking forward to book three, and I'm interested in reading more by these authors - I know Kaufman has a new series launching in the fall that sounds really intriguing. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: Pennyroyal Academy

Pennyroyal Academy (Pennyroyal Academy, book one)
By M.A. Larson, read by Susan Duerden
Published 2014 by Penguin Audio

A girl has no memory of who she is, where she comes from, or where she should be but she knows there is something for her at Pennyroyal Academy. She enlists, making friends with the princesses and knights enrolled, all learning the most important thing: how to fight witches and dragons. But strange memories begin appearing to her and it isn't long before she is on a dangerous quest to discover the truth.

I downloaded the audio edition of this recently, as I was in need of something to read and I thought this sounded interesting. Initially, I didn't think this was a great choice for a listen - the story begins with no context, with readers (and listeners) simply dropped into the forest with our main character. It was a bit much to try to follow at first, particularly as the main character has no name until one is given to her at the Academy.

Despite a bit of a rough start, I ended up enjoying this book. It's got a lot of familiar elements, but I think it tells an interesting enough story to hold its own. I really liked the friendships that Evie (as she is eventually called) develops at Pennyroyal, and most of the secondary characters are pretty entertaining. There is a bit of romance that, while predictable, was charming and plenty of action. The big reveal is probably not terribly surprising, though I didn't see it coming.

Overall, though, I don't have much to say about this one. It's not very memorable, but I enjoyed it well enough while reading. It's listed as the first in a series on Goodreads, though no word yet on when a sequel might appear. I'd be interested enough to check it out if it ever does.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (Prisoner of Night and Fog, book two)
By Anne Blankman
Expected publication April 21, 2015 by Balzer + Bray

Read my review of book one here.

Gretchen has escaped from under the thumb of her Uncle Dolf and found a peaceful new life with her beloved Daniel. But Uncle Dolf has not slowed down and it's only a matter of time before he becomes the most powerful man in Germany. When Daniel's cousin is attacked, he returns to Germany, only to be accused of murder. Can Gretchen and Daniel clear his name and find a way to stop Hitler and the National Socialists?

After my ambivalent feelings about book one, I was hesitant to come to book two, but willing to give it a try. When I spotted the e-galley available, I downloaded it and got busy reading.

Many of my criticisms of book one hold true for this volume as well. I generally find Gretchen to be the least interesting of the characters, despite her being the protagonist. This book was especially difficult to truly become invested in because Gretchen and Daniel have been separated from the characters we met in book one. I think one of my favorite parts here was the reappearance of Gretchen's former best friend (and Hitler's mistress), Eva. It's fascinating to see her at the beginning of her long and tumultuous affair with Hitler and how it has changed her, particularly in Gretchen's eyes. Once again, Gretchen's internal struggles don't feel terribly authentic to me, though the source of her struggles is different in this volume. Here, much of the focus of Gretchen's angst is on figuring out how she and Daniel can have a happily ever after, which really seems pretty unlikely considering the time and place their story is set.

Additionally, as in my review of book one, much of the worldbuilding here in book two feels like an infodump. The entire storyline of Gretchen and Daniel and the ringverein seemed to exist because it was an interesting bit of information that Blankman stumbled upon and wanted to fit into her story somehow. It works, but it felt a bit forced. The romance feels very melodramatic in this one and, as I said, I was not expecting a happy ending for the couple (I won't tell you whether I was right or not), so mostly I was bored by Gretchen's dithering over how to make things work between them.

Again, where this book works for me is in the central mysteries - that of the Reichstag fire and the murder for which Daniel has been framed. The added temporal pressure of the Enabling Act also ratcheted up the tension for me. However, it wasn't until the author's note that I realized this series was to only be a duology - in the note, Blankman outlines the fates of most of the real-life figures involved in her story, making it clear that this would be our last interaction with them. I would have been intrigued to see what Blankman could have done by continuing the series during World War II, but it would have almost certainly had a very tragic ending.

Ultimately, an interesting piece of historical fiction, exciting enough to recommend to reluctant genre readers. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.