Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Release Day Review: Half a World Away

Half a World Away
By Cynthia Kadohata
Expected publication September 2, 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Jaden knows that the reason his parents are adopting a baby is because he is such a huge failure. His parents adopted him and he's given them nothing but trouble. But from the minute they arrive in Kazakhstan to adopt the new baby, things go wrong. Is it more of Jaden's bad luck at work? Will they ever be a happy family?

I spotted this galley on Edelweiss and requested it because Cynthia Kadohata is kind of a big deal. She's an award-winning author and her books are always highly anticipated. So, on the long weekend, I took a day and sped through this book.

I really liked it. As I said, it only took me a couple hours to read. I was completely pulled in by Jaden's voice - it was heartbreaking and realistic. He's so angry, but it's so easy to understand why he feels that way. Though I'm not adopted and have never experienced many of the emotions that Jaden is feeling firsthand, it's not hard to understand why he's experiencing them. It's heartbreaking to read about the difficulties of the relationships between Jaden and his adoptive parents. It's quite clear that Kadohata did extensive research with adopted children and families. This book just breaks your heart in little pieces and Jaden casually references all the various psychiatrists he's visited and all the unhealthy ways he's expressed his emotions throughout the past.

I found some elements of the plot a little too unbelievable. The adoption agency that Jaden's parents are using is found to be going out of business and yet they still plan on flying to Kazakhstan and trying to go through with the adoption. I've never felt the desperate need that perhaps adoptive parents feel (or any parents for that matter) so to me, it just seems crazy that they wouldn't report this to someone. Ditto on what happens once they get to the baby house in Kazakhstan. The ending is also a bit pat, but touching.

For me, this book is just an outstanding example of a realistic voice. I appreciate the multiculturalism here as well. I think this book will open up kid's eyes to issues that they may not be familiar with.

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

Monday, September 1, 2014

August Check-In

Time again to check on my stats for the month! Here's the breakdown:

Middle-grade: 5

Teen: 9.5

Adult: 5

Picture books: 15

Library books: 22

Books owned: 12.5

 You may remember in last month's post that I said most of the "books owned" were digital galleys I had rather than physical books I owned. Well, that holds true for this month again, and will likely continue for September. I have a lot of e-ARCs for September releases that I'll be trying to read before their pub dates. I also had a higher number of library books this month. Yes, a large portion is made up of the new picture books that came in a few weeks ago, but I also read some other books. I decided that if I was checking a book out for my fiancee to read that I also wanted to read, as long as we could both read it in the normal check-out period, I would do so. So, that has contributed to library book reading, and maybe it's cheating on my resolution but oh well. The half book here is a digital galley I started and just had no desire to finished (Undead with Benefits - released August 26). I had read the first book last year and felt lukewarm about it, but the second book just didn't grab me at all. I'm still hoping to do better with physical books in the future, but we'll see.

Also, the Cybils have started! I had a lot of fun as a Round 2 judge last year and have thrown my hat in the ring again this year. Do you have a blog? Would you like experience serving on an award committee? Apply to be a Cybils judge! You have until September 5 to do so. Just fill out the form found here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Program: Mad Science

Once again, I have a few programs to share with you! Mad Science Mondays is a program I ran during the school year, once a month on a Monday afternoon. We had a different theme and experiments every month. Here's how we finished out the spring.

Lava Lamps - I started with a brief PowerPoint presentation on oil and water and why they don't mix. We talked about molecules and then I handed out the supplies to see our experiment in action. This is a very simple experiment, though a bit messy. You simply fill an empty water bottle 2/3 full with vegetable oil and the rest of the way with water, leaving some room at the top. Then you add food coloring of your choice. The food coloring will sink through the oil and mix with the water (as standard food coloring is water soluble). Once the food coloring and water are mixed together, break up an Alka-Seltzer tablet and drop in one piece at a time. The tablet will sink to the water and release colored bubbles through the oil to the surface. It's a temporary effect (you have to keep adding tablets to keep the bubbles going) but the kids were pretty mesmerized by it. I explained the science behind it and the kids left with their own lava lamps!

Egg Science - as I browsed through my collection of simple (and economical) science experiments, I noticed that eggs seemed to present a number of possibilities. I actually planned on doing this program in two parts: part one consisting of the experiments I'm about to mention and part two being an egg drop. However, I could not secure access to the roof or a tall enough ladder to make part two work. Perhaps I'll try again in the future. Anyway, this is what we ended up with. I walked on eggs which, disappointingly, no one was terribly surprised to see I could do (also, they desperately wanted me to get egg all over my feet). Prior to the program, I made a bouncing egg, but I tested it out live in front of the kids. Results? Huge fail - the egg didn't bounce, even from a couple inches and instead just splatted all over me (much to their delight). And finally, we made egg geodes. No PowerPoint this time; I just explained the science as we went along. They each got an egg in vinegar to take home for further bouncing egg experiments, plus their geode starters. Aside from getting egg all over me, they liked the geodes the best (anything with food coloring seems to be a big hit with them).

Sweets - one of my most popular programs last summer was candy science, so I figured I'd give it another go-round during a less-crazy time of year. Once again, we made ice cream in a bag, but this time, I actually had the chance to explain the science behind it. I think we could just do this experiment over and over again and the kids would be happy. Then, we did another perpetual favorite: Mentos geysers. We tested out a variety of sodas to see which would create the biggest geyser. Easy and always a hit.

And that was our spring of Mad Science Mondays! Unfortunately, attendance for this program drastically dropped off (with the exception of the sweets science), so I won't be continuing it in the fall. I would be happy to let someone else give it a shot, but I think science is not my strong suit. Has anyone had any simple but crazy successes?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: The Trouble with Weasels

The Trouble with Weasels (Life of Zarf, book one)
By Rob Harrell
Expected publication September 2, 2014 by Dial

Zarf is a troll. Yes, THAT kind. He also has what is basically the worst name in the kingdom - I mean, come on, it rhymes with 'barf'. But he's pretty content otherwise. Until the day the beloved King disappears and his not-so-nice son, Prince Roquefort (Zarf's mortal enemy), takes his place. Things get even more complicated when Zarf embarks on a quest to discover the truth behind the king's disappearance.

I requested the galley of this because I figured it would be a quick read. Plus, it's an illustrated middle-grade fantasy novel, something that has tons of appeal to readers, so I figured it'd be helpful if I checked it out.

It definitely hits all the right notes on appeal factors for middle-grade readers - short chapters, liberal illustrations, a blend of silly and sophisticated humor, and typical middle school problems. I wasn't wrong about this being a quick read - I finished it in a couple of hours. The short chapters definitely help speed things along - it keeps readers turning the pages to find out what will happen next. Similarly, the liberal use of illustrations eat up large chunks of page space, making the pages fly by even more quickly. And it is funny - I chuckled to myself a number of times while reading. As I mentioned, it's a blend of silly humor (think your Captain Underpants, etc.) and slightly more sophisticated stuff (puns, satire, ludicrous twists on familiar tales). It works well and I think makes the book more appealing to a wider variety of readers. Though Zarf is a troll and his world is populated by fairy tale creatures, many of their problems are typical of kids in the middle-school set, making the book even more accessible to readers.

My only question is whether this illustrated kind of novel will appeal to fantasy readers as well - this book is, after all, definitely a fantasy. The only book that has come close to the same level of popularity as Diary of a Wimpy Kid is Origami Yoda - but both of those books are realistic fiction. I'm not sure if those same readers will be on board for a similar style in a fantasy world, but I'm happy for the change of pace. I will definitely be recommending this to readers of those series.

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: 100 Sideways Miles

100 Sideways Miles
By Andrew Smith
Expected publication September 2, 2014 by Simon & Schuster

Finn Easton is not an alien. Yes, he does have two different color eyes and a scar on his back, traits he shares with the aliens in a famous novel, written by his father. But he is not an alien, just a kid trying to figure out his place in the world. And, when he meets the lovely Julia Bishop, he just might be on the right path.

I was very excited to discover that Smith had two books publishing this year, and I was even more excited to read this after I finished the truly excellent Grasshopper Jungle (review forthcoming, because clearly I still haven't mastered the art of reviewing things in any logical order). Sadly, this book didn't quite live up to my admittedly lofty expectations.

Let's start with the good - the characters. Man, Andrew Smith. He just gets teenagers. Every novel of his I've read has been filled to the brim with excellent characters who practically leap off the page to tell you their stories. Finn is no exception. He felt real. I wanted to give him a big hug at some times and at others, I wanted to smack the nonsense out of him. His voice is strong and truthful and if teens aren't reading Smith's books, they are missing out. What is especially excellent about Smith's books is that he doesn't stop with his protagonists - all his secondary characters are interesting as well. Cade, for example. At first glance, he's a stereotype but, as the book progresses, he becomes a much more nuanced character who broke my heart a little. That's the thing about a Smith book - you're almost guaranteed a little heartbreak.

I really enjoyed the way this story was told, almost in vignettes, and I thought Finn's measuring time in miles was really fascinating. As I've mentioned before, I love books that lead you to questions about serious topics without preaching or feeling painfully obvious. Smith is great at writing about things that make you want to ask big questions: what does it take to be a hero? Do all heroes start out great or can one become that greatness? How do my dreams differ from my parent's dreams for me? It's really thought-provoking stuff without feeling heavy-handed, something I think teens will really appreciate.

Things that didn't quite stand up for me: I wish Julia had been given a more prominent role. Actually, in general, Smith's female characters could do with more agency of their own, but it bothered me particularly here because there were hints of a really interesting character that I would have loved to get to know better. Once again, I find myself quibbling with the summary/jacket copy (I read an ARC, so I'm not sure what the final jacket copy will read). I find it almost another case of false advertising - the second paragraph is devoted to the time after Julia moves away, when Finn and Cade head out on a road trip that takes a dramatically unexpected turn. However, once again, this is an event that doesn't occur until very late in the novel, leaving me to spend much of the novel in anticipation of events that didn't happen until I'd nearly reached the end. Yes, the time after Julia leaves is quite defining for Finn and the road trip certainly is a major turning point. But putting it in the summary leads me to a false belief that it's going to happen sooner rather than later in the story. Maybe I'm the only one who finds this to be an issue, but it seems to be happening more and more.

Overall, this is another solid read from Smith, one that I imagine will find an audience and one I'll be happy to recommend.

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Release Day Review: Ghost House

Ghost House (Ghost House Saga, book one)
By Alexandra Adornetto
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by HarperTeen

After the death of her mother, Chloe and her brother are sent to stay with their very English grandmother on her very English countryside estate. There's just one problem: Chloe can see ghosts. And one of the ghosts at Grange Hall is not excited that Chloe has come to stay.

Here is another in my string of extremely disappointing young adult ghost stories. I'm not even sure how much I can review this one because I'm just tired of writing the same thing about these stories. I think the main difference with this one is that it's a poorly written romance disguised as a ghost story. So I guess at least that's a little change of pace.

I thought the book was okay in the beginning - Chloe and her family learning to deal with their grief. I mean, it still wasn't anything super special, but it was working okay (though I did find it quite strange and unnecessary that the facts of Chloe's mother's death are obscured for so long). But then we get to the ghosty part and it just all falls to pieces.

Because not only is it a poorly written ghost story. It's a poorly written INSTA-LOVE ghost story. With a ghost. Right. Did you get that clearly? Chloe falls completely and desperately (and quite pathetically) in love with a ghost. Of course, she doesn't realize he's a ghost at first, so I guess that makes it okay? Or it's supposed to anyway.

And then it just gets even more trite and ridiculous. Because ghost boys poltergeisty former paramour is having none of this business and makes it her undead mission to destroy Chloe and maybe her kid brother while she's at it. I mean, I'm not rooting for the evil, crazy, possessive spirit, but the ghost that Chloe loves? Not such a great guy either.

Sometimes when a book is really bad, I finish reading it and I love it (because I truly love and appreciate things that are so awful, they're amazing). This book never gets to that level, instead remaining on the tedious just plain bad plateau. And the twist at the end that sets this up for future volumes? DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED.

To be quite honest, though, this book will find its fans and, if you're a librarian worth your salt, you'll be able to tell what kind of readers will be interested in this one. Fans of over-the-top impossible romance, start your queue here.

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Amity

By Micol Ostow
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Egmont USA

Connor has never been normal, something he gets from his father. But when his family moves to Amity, he begins to spiral dangerously out of control. Gwen has been hospitalized before - her family thinks she is prone to hysteria, to seeing things that aren't really there. The move to Amity is supposed to be good for her, a change of pace. It will be anything but that.

Okay, huge horror fan, even though I am quite frequently disappointed (I've been a horror fan so long that most things don't actually scare me), but I couldn't pass this one up. I wrote my college thesis on horror films of the 1970s that had been remade in the new century and The Amityville Horror was one of them. I'm not sure how familiar today's teens will be with the story, but it really doesn't have that much bearing on the story in this book.

See, this is not a retelling of Amityville, simply inspired by it, so even teens unfamiliar with the original story will be able to read and enjoy this one. I liked the dual narrative structure - Connor and Gwen's stories, set ten years apart - even though it was a bit difficult to get into at first. Once the story got underway, I thought it was refreshing to move back and forth between the narratives, seeing the parallels and differences. Actually, I think this book excels at pacing overall - the chapters are short, long enough to give you information but short enough to keep you flipping the pages quickly. As the book progresses and the danger draws ever nearer, the chapters get even shorter, upping the frenetic pace at which you turn the pages. I think it took me just a couple hours to finish this one - I was completely invested in the suspense of the story.

In terms of the horror, there is some gore described on the page, so if you're sensitive, bear that in mind. The horror here is more psychological than physical - the slow descent into madness, the questioning of one's own sanity. It's heavy stuff, and I think Ostow does it well. I think teens looking for a gripping horror story this fall will be in luck to discover this one.

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