Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: The Foundry's Edge

The Foundry's Edge (The Books of Ore, book one)
By Cam Baity and Benny Zelkowicz
Published 2014 by Disney-Hyperion

Phoebe lives a comfortable life, even if it is tinged with sadness. She is still reeling from her mother's death but her father, an important man, has provided her everything she could ask for. However, when danger arrives on their doorstep, Phoebe finds herself following her father into an unbelievable world - a world of living metal. Is this the secret her father was kidnapped to protect? Can Phoebe, along with her begrudging servant Micah, rescue him?

The premise of this book sounded really interesting to me when I came across the ARC at ALA Midwinter. I was trying not to take home too many (as my house was already overflowing with books), but I wanted to give this a try. The notion of steampunk for middle grade readers really intrigues me and I'm always looking for unique fantasy to recommend to my readers.

I wanted to like this book much more than I actually did, which is always an unfortunate situation in which to find myself. Here's my main problem with this book: it is way too long. I didn't actually get interested and invested in the story or characters until probably 200 pages in, and that's just no good. Most people are not like me; they'll quit a book if they don't feel that connection within the first few chapters. It's my sheer stubbornness that forces me to keep reading books I'm not particularly feeling. In this case, I'm glad I stuck with it, because the second half of the book is quite good. The pacing picks up, the plot develops more rapidly, and I actually started to care about the characters. Taking the second half of the book alone, I think it's quite well done. The world of Mehk is fascinating and fleshed out really well. The characters come into their own. The journey to rescue Dr. Plumm feels dangerous and important. All in all, it's quite an exhilarating book for the second half.

But that's the problem. Readers must first have to slog through the first part of the book to get to the good stuff. And it will take a very persevering reader to do so. I'm torn on whether or not I'll be back for book two. As I said, by the second half, the book seemed to have found its footing, so I have hopes that book two will hit the ground running. I'll likely give it a shot, but I'm not sure how many readers will get into this one.

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Release Day Review: Prisoner of Night and Fog

Prisoner of Night and Fog (book one)
By Anne Blankman
Expected publication April 22, 2014 by Balzer + Bray

Gretchen has grown up under the affectionate gaze of her Uncle Dolf, but, as she grows older, things begin to change. You see, Uncle Dolf is Adolf Hitler and he is steadily gaining power and prominence. Gretchen has always believed what he's told her, but when she meets a young Jewish reporter with questions about her father's death, she's not sure what to think anymore. Will Gretchen continue to be Dolf's beloved niece or will she search out the truth, no matter the cost?

As I've said before, I'm a big historical fiction fan. I'm also a big fan of taking well-known characters or historical figures and looking at them in a different light. So, when I spotted this e-galley, it was a no-brainer download for me. I was really intrigued by the notion of Hitler's niece and how a young person who has grown up in his shadow would view his rise to power.

Unfortunately, this book was a big old mixed bag for me. While it certainly was interesting reading about Gretchen and her opinion of Uncle Dolf (who, it should be noted, is not technically her uncle, but a family friend), other parts of the story felt too convenient or unbelievable for me. Actually, I found Gretchen's brother Reinhard to be maybe the most interesting character, and Gretchen certainly had plenty to deal with when it came to him. This book takes place in the early 1930s, so Hitler has not yet risen to the top of the political power; however, he is well on his way. Gretchen has grown up admiring him and believing what he's told her about Jewish people. The book focuses on what happens when Gretchen actually meets a Jewish person for herself. I had a little difficulty believing that Gretchen would so easily let her long-held beliefs about Jews go after a few interactions. Yes, Blankman does note her internal struggle with it, but the struggle feels false to me.

Similarly, Blankman does a fine job setting the tone and atmosphere of the novel - 1930s Germany is not a place I would have liked to have been. However, a lot of the information Blankman provides about Hitler's comrades and members of the National Socialist Party feels info-dumpy. A lot of it feels like a reading of facts about Party members, without a lot of characterization of them. In fact, I had a difficult time distinguishing between them all. Additionally, the romance felt too convenient for me. From the beginning, it was clear that Gretchen was going to fall in love with a Jewish man, and it never felt authentically developed to me.

The mystery of Gretchen's father's death seemed believable enough and gave the book the push to move forward, though, as I said, I was more interested in Gretchen's solving the mystery of her brother. I was disappointed upon reading the author's note to discover that this is going to be a series. While there is obviously plenty of fodder for more books about Gretchen and her relationship with Hitler (he hasn't even been elected Chancellor yet), I liked the ambiguous ending of this book. I will come back for book two because I'm interested to see how Blankman will handle the increasing bleakness of historical events, but I'll be back with some hesitations.

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Venom

Venom (Secrets of the Eternal Rose, book one)
By Fiona Paul
Published 2012 by Philomel

Cass lives a life of luxury in Renaissance Venice, though it hasn't been easy since her parents' deaths. Things only get more complicated, however, when she discovers a murdered young woman. Soon, she finds herself caught up in a mysterious world of secret societies - and finds her affections torn between two men.

Well, I like mysteries and I like historical fiction, so no real surprise as to why I picked this one up. I actually had an e-galley of this title, but it expired before I finished it. I didn't make it a priority to pick up the book and finish it post-publication, but, back before the Year of No Library Books began, I decided to try to finish up a few books that I'd left in similar situations.

This book is pretty much what I expected. It's a gossipy, fast-paced historical romance with a decent mystery thrown in. Though I'm a big fan of historical fiction, I don't often know much about actual history, so I can't really speak to the historical accuracy of this book. I will say that I don't think Cass would have really gotten away with as much as she does in the novel in actual Renaissance Venice - young women didn't really have a lot of agency back then. Maybe the lack of her parents would have given her more freedom, but I have my doubts.

That being said, my feelings for Cass are pretty neutral. I don't particularly like her, but I don't dislike her either. I find her interesting enough that I zipped through this book and I was involved enough in her story to find myself caring a bit about which love interest she should pursue. This perhaps speaks to the secondary characters being developed well enough that I did actually have an opinion on the love triangle and I'm interested to see what happens with it in book two.

The mystery is perhaps the lightest part of the story, but it does involve a secret society and murdered courtesans, so it's definitely got some intrigue. I called this book gossipy and I don't mean that in a negative way - it feels like a mystery that would be shared in darkened corners of secret rooms and whispered from friend to friend.

Readers looking for a fast-paced historical read with some swooning and intrigue thrown in will definitely find something to enjoy in this book.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Program: beTWEEN the lines/Write for Your Life

So, it's been quite some time since I wrote about my beloved tween book club, beTWEEN the lines. This is partly because I'm incredibly far behind on program write-ups (and reviews in general - someday I hope to be much more current with posting my reviews). It's also partly because I've been sad thinking about writing this post. You see, the book club is no more. After abysmal attendance in September and October, I scheduled one more session in November and returned to our original format - we all would read the same book and discuss it. The book in question was Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming. As the meeting date approached and I saw only one name on the sign out sheet (participants signed out copies of the book), I knew it was over. When I spotted my lone attendee at a program the week before our scheduled book club meeting, I let her know that the meeting was cancelled and she could return her copy of the book the next time she came to the library. She didn't seem particularly sad to discover that we wouldn't be meeting. And so, my beloved book club went out with a whimper.

I am really sad to have let this program go, though I have seen greater success with new monthly programs. What makes me even sadder is that just a few weeks ago, we had a phone call from one of the mothers of last year's regular attendees. She wanted to know why she didn't see the club on the calendar anymore and wondered if I would start it back up again. I wish I could but, as I've said many times, in its original format it was a costly and time-consuming program that never had stellar attendance. We have had similar bad luck with teen book clubs here, so maybe it just doesn't work in our area.

I was less sad to see my Write for Your Life program go. I had only started this program because we had a lot of patron requests for it. From the beginning, I had a feeling that we wouldn't have attendance that reflected these requests. I wasn't wrong. For the November meeting, I had one attendee - the same one who had been coming to book club in the fall. We worked on character worksheets that I had found on the NaNoWriMo site for young people. With low attendance, it didn't seem worth it to keep devoting staff time to this program, so away it went. No one has asked what happened to this one.

Have you had to drop recurring programs because of poor attendance? What recurring programs actually draw a crowd for you?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: The Scorch Trials

The Scorch Trials (Maze Runner, book two)
By James Dashner
Published 2010 by Delacorte Press

WARNING: There may be spoilers for book one. To read my review of The Maze Runner, go here

Thomas and the Gladers believed that escaping the Maze would be the end of their ordeal. They are wrong. What awaits for them outside may be even worse.

After listening to the first book of this series on audio, I was in no great rush to pick up the second. However, my boyfriend felt a greater sense of urgency to find some answers to the puzzles presented in the first book, so I finally picked up the second.

This time around, we went with the print copy and I'm glad about that. I felt a bit frustrated while listening to book one as it seemed I would be able to read much faster than listening. I wasn't wrong. In addition to my ambivalence about the first title, I had heard from a few friends that the series only gets worse as it goes on, so I had some trepidation about picking up the second title. I don't think those criticisms are wrong and, though I see that when I initially added this book to my Goodreads account I gave it three stars, the more I think about it, the less I liked it.

This book shares the same fast pace as the first and that definitely works in its favor as the actual plot is pretty boring. There is little to no explanation of what is going on in this book, or why, and it quickly becomes tiresome reading. Additionally, I expected more character development in this entry in the series - that seems one way to keep the middle book in a trilogy from feeling like a chore you have to slog through to get to the exciting conclusion. Once again, there is little to no character development. It's not a good sign that I find both the plot and the characters just plain boring - this is supposed to be an adventurous science fiction novel!

I am of two minds about this series. On the one hand, I'm invested enough in the story that I want to find out the answers. On the other, it's just not very good. I'll finish it out, but I'm not sure I'll be reading any more Dashner after this.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Secrets (Untamed City, book one)
By Melissa Marr, read by James Marsters
Published 2012 by HarperCollins

Mallory knows little about The City, but the inhabitants of The City know all about her. Soon, she'll find out more than she ever wanted to know, as her path crosses dangerously with Aya and Kaleb, two desperate souls searching for better lives. Originally published as Carnival of Souls.

I will fully admit: the main reason I listened to this audiobook is because it was narrated by James Marsters (Spike from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer). I adore him and think his voice is lovely, so when I found out he was doing audiobook narration, I was eager to listen. I have read the majority of the Wicked Lovely series and enjoyed it, so I also had interest in reading something new from Melissa Marr.

What I liked most about this book is that it feels gritty and dark. I liked Wicked Lovely because it explored the darker side of fae and, in general, I'm a fan of dark fantasy and horror. There is quite a bit of violence in this novel and it all feels ever darker than the faeries in her previous books. I also enjoyed the multiple points of view. It was interesting to have a variety of perspectives in this world. I did find myself a bit frustrated by the lack of development of Mallory - it was my understanding from the blurb that she was really the main focus of the book, yet in actuality, we don't spend that much time with her. So, I wish either the blurb was different, or she had been focused on more fully. That being said, I think Aya was my favorite character - she felt more fully realized than Mallory and I found her story slightly more interesting than the others.

Where I found this book lacking was the romance and the lack of worldbuilding. The romance never felt genuine to me, and came out of nowhere, in a way that I found very unappealing. Maybe if we had spent more time with Mallory it would make more sense, but I don't think it rings true to Kaleb's character. In terms of worldbuilding, Marr has the beginnings of a truly fascinating world in play here but there is a distinct lack of information. There is little to no explanation of what the daimons and witches are, or why they don't get along. I don't want a big infodump explaining all that to me, but I would like something that gives me some insight.

I thought Marsters was a great choice for the audiobook. As I said, I think his voice is lovely to listen to, and he captured the darkness of the story quite well. I'm not sure how successful he really was at distinguishing the character voices, but I still enjoyed listening.

Final note: there seems to be some controversy surrounding this title, which is allegedly the first in the series. First, there was the business about the title (I think there was a lawsuit), which I don't care so much about. But there also seems to be something complex going on between the author and publisher as there is no information on when a second book might be forthcoming. I did find an indication of an e-novella being released this fall, but nothing beyond that, leaving me wondering if this series will continue anytime soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Release Day Review: House of Ivy & Sorrow

House of Ivy & Sorrow
By Natalie Whipple
Expected publication April 15, 2014 by HarperTeen

Jo's grandmother is actually the witch that lives in the spooky old ivy-covered house. Jo is a witch, too, and she and her grandmother are the last two Hemlocks left. Her mother was killed by a terrible Curse and she's been on the run from it since. Now, it seems like all the magical barriers they've put in place are failing - the shadows have found Jo.

I could not resist a book with such an intriguing name and graphically pleasing cover. I whipped through the e-galley of this book recently. That was one of my favorite things about this book - quick and compelling read. I really wanted to get the whole story, so I would have liked to read this without putting it down if that had been possible. The chapters are short and the pacing is quick - the action comes at a pretty steady clip so this book is a really fast read.

I also really liked Jo - she is an easy girl to relate to and therefore, it's easy to get on her side. Yes, she is a pretty powerful witch, which is not typical for a teen girl, but she also has typical teen problems. She's funny and interesting with a touch of melodrama, which really works in this situation. I also really enjoyed Jo's grandmother - if there has to be another dead mom, then reading about this grandmother is a decent balm for that. She's quite amusing, though maybe a little much on the quirkiness scale.

The mythology is a bit different than what I've seen in other witch stories, though the female-only bit is pretty common. I really liked the Curse and loved discovering how it really worked and Jo's quest for answers propels the book along. I was expecting a bit more darkness from the title than the book actually delivers but, overall, I found it a fun and quick read.

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