Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: The Witch's Boy

The Witch's Boy
By Kelly Barnhill
Expected publication September 16, 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers

The wrong boy lived. Those are the words whispered around him, the words that have haunted Ned since the day he and his brother tried to sail to the sea - and only one of them returned. Ned might finally have a chance to prove those words wrong when a bandit from another land threatens their magic. But what happens when that bandit's daughter meets Ned? Will she protect her father or the strange boy her mother once told her would save her life?

This is the first book by Barnhill that I've read. I spotted the cover reveal months ago and was immediately intrigued, and reading the synopsis only further piqued my interest. Then I saw the title pop up in discussions about Newbery buzz, leaving me even further intrigued. So, when I spotted the galley available for download, I took my chance.

As I said, this is the first of Barnhill's work that I've read - I remember Iron-Hearted Violet getting some buzz and wanting to read it but never finding the time. Now that I've read this one, I'll definitely be going back and reading her earlier titles. This was a lovely book. The writing is engaging and magical - I loved reading every sentence Barnhill put on the page. There was just something enchanting about the way she told this story. I liked spending time with both Ned and Aine (though I did spend a lot of time wondering how to pronounce her name) - I felt both characters come to life with Barnhill's words.

I really liked the magic that Barnhill created as well. It was unique, different than most fairy tale magic, and I loved seeing the way it interacted with the characters in the book. This is not a short book (in fact, it seems that most middle grade fantasy is at least 300 pages nowadays, if not closer to 400). It's also not necessarily action-packed. Of course, there is adventure and danger that comes throughout the tale - it just comes at a slightly more leisurely pace than one might expect. Despite this, though, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I never felt the book dragged. I wanted to read as fast as I could to learn more about these characters and more about the magic and more about their fate and how it would all play out. For the right kind of reader, this book is definitely going to hit all the right notes. I very much enjoyed the time I spent with Ned and Aine and I'm looking forward to more of Barnhill's lovely writing in the future.

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Release Day Review: I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun
By Jandy Nelson
Expected publication September 16, 2014 by Dial

Jude and Noah are twins and are extremely close - sometimes the only comfort they can find is with each other. They both love art and are encouraged by their mother to explore their talents. But what happens when it appears that one twin's talent shines brighter than the other? And what happens when a tragedy makes the twins nearly unrecognizable to each other?

I started hearing buzz about this book some time ago and I was anticipating it. I had listened to Nelson's first book (the spectacular The Sky is Everywhere) and definitely looked forward to whatever she came up with next. So I snatched this one up as soon as I saw the e-galley available.

I devoured this book. I read a huge chunk of it one morning, and then a few smaller pieces the next couple of days, and then the last 200 pages probably in one fell swoop. I desperately needed to read this book - I wanted nothing more than to return to its pages. That is largely due to Nelson's prodigious authorial talent. Much of what I said in my review of Nelson's debut holds true for her sophomore effort as well. The writing is absolutely enchanting - her descriptions of art and the artistic process held me in their thrall and made me wish that I could create in the ways she described. They left me awed by the talent it takes to make art. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a sucker for beautiful prose and Nelson certainly has me swindled.

I loved the way that she chose to tell this story as well. It's a dual narrative, so readers get to hear both Jude and Noah's perspectives. Cleverly, though, Nelson has set the narratives in different times as well - Jude is narrating in the present day and Noah's narrative begins three years earlier. Both progress forward in time, so Noah's narrative moves closer to the tragedy that tears the twins apart, while Jude's gives readers perspective on the state of their relationship in the present. The entire narrative is kind of like a puzzle - the full details of what tears the twins apart are not known until late in the novel, slowly revealed in bits and pieces through both narratives. I loved this choice - I loved the not knowing, the suspense of wondering about the details. I thought it worked really well. And I particularly loved coming to the end and seeing all the details together, how everything connected into a beautiful, complicated story.

The characters are lovely as well. Twins are a source of nearly endless fascination for anyone who's not a twin, and I think having the dual narrative really helped this book. The voices of the twins are similar but also distinct. I found them believable and completely engrossing. I rooted for these characters so hard. I fell completely in love with both Jude and Noah in turns, though it was never easy to love either of them completely. Parts of this book made me laugh, other parts made me cry, and a few times I actually gasped and covered my eyes with my hands.

The more I write this review, the more I think about this book, the more I love it. It's absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking and hopeful. Definitely a book to get yours hands on as soon as possible.

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Allegiant

Allegiant (Divergent, book three)
By Veronica Roth
Published 2013 by Katherine Tegen Books

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for the first two books and likely for this one as well. If you'd like to read my review of books one and two, follow the links.

Tris's world is no longer the same one she grew up in. She can no longer deny that the Factions are not working and it's going to take something huge to start a change. Will Tris be that catalyst?

After mixed reactions to the first two books in the series, I was eager to see what the concluding volume had in store. Then I began to hear reader reactions from the first batch of fans who read it - and none of it was good. So, I got even more interested in seeing just what Roth had done. I read the book as soon as I could after its release and sadly haven't gotten around to reviewing it until now. I wish I had written my review immediately after finishing; I think I'd have stronger points to make. This is something I'm trying to work on this year; we'll see if I succeed.

Anyway, back to the book. Like the second, I felt like Roth did a good job keeping tension high and throwing in believable twists and turns. I still feel pretty ambivalent about Tris - I root for her to succeed but I also find her annoying quite frequently. With this book, Roth has introduced a new POV - that of, Four, Tris's boyfriend. It's an interesting choice and I'm not sure it's one I entirely understand. It seemed like their narratives were duplicating each other a lot of the time and if Roth wanted a new perspective, there were a number of characters who would have given more interesting insights to events than Four. Surprisingly, this was my boyfriend's main problem with the book (yes, he's read them all) - he absolutely hated Four as a narrator and could not comprehend why Roth had done this.

As I expected, many questions from the previous books were finally answered in this volume, though I'm not sure those answers were always as satisfactory as I would have liked. Another anecdote from my boyfriend: he read the book before I did and when we were talking about it casually one day, I mentioned its setting of Chicago. "How do you know that?" he cried. "They just found out it's Chicago in this book. Have you been reading spoilers?" Well, I hadn't, and I guess I missed the point in the story where the fact that the whole series takes place in Chicago was not obvious. I've known that since book one. So, this big reveal in book three fell very flat for me.

The ending is, of course, what most early reviewers of the book were up in arms about. For me, I think it was a realistic way to end the story for Tris's character and I'd likely have been overwhelmingly disappointed if Roth had chosen to end it any other way. However, I'm not sure that the ending worked in the larger context of the story. I don't get a huge sense of things actually changing in the aftermath of Tris's decision. That's my boyfriend's reason for hating the ending - he thinks it was all for nothing. I can clearly see this argument.

So, overall, this series is a mixed bag. It is a good readalike for fans of fast-paced dystopian fiction but they may ultimately find themselves too frustrated with some aspect of this series to say they enjoyed it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Blackbird

Blackbird (Blackbird duology, book one)
By Anna Carey
Expected publication September 16, 2014 by HarperTeen

Waking up with no memory of who she is, a girl quickly becomes involved in a deadly chase. What happened to her memories? What is the significance of the strange tattoo on her wrist? Who can she trust?

I watch Tea Time with Epic Reads occasionally (though not often, as it airs when I'm working) and usually, it's a terrible idea. I mean that mostly because it usually leads to the rapid growth of my TBR pile. This book was getting some buzz from the Tea Time ladies, so when I spotted the e-galley available, I wanted to have it.

I am very much in favor of unique perspectives in fiction, so this book being written in second person definitely appealed to me. I think I've only read a couple other books with that perspective and it seems like it's generally saved for "Choose Your Own Adventure" style stories. The second person perspective is definitely a risk - if it doesn't pull you completely in, it will just feel inauthentic and gimmicky. With this book, I think it works decently well, though I didn't always understand the chapters that Carey chose to tell from a different perspective - those chapters really break the flow of the narrative and quickly pull you out of the action.

My major problems with this book are twofold: first, it's wildly unbelievable. Almost nothing that happens reads like something I could see happening - not the quick thinking decision to flatten herself on the tracks, nor the lengths to which Ben goes to protect her, nor the notion that she is being hunted in the middle of Los Angeles and no one knows it. Yes, suspension of disbelief is necessary for the enjoyment of a great amount of fiction, but for a book that seems to take place in our very real world, this just didn't work for me.

Second, there are no answers in this volume. Before I started, I didn't realize this was book one of a duology - I expected a self-contained story. So, as I barrelled toward the end of my page count, it became very clear and very frustrating that the answers I'd been waiting for were not going to appear. Yes, we find out vague details of the overarching mystery, but the majority of our questions remain unanswered. What does the tattoo mean? What do the memory flashes mean? Why has Ben been helping? It's supremely disappointing to be left in almost the exact same level of knowledge as when I started the book.

Readers looking for an action-packed thrill ride with a unique narrative might enjoy this read - if they can bear waiting for the answers in book two.

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Terror of the Southlands

Terror of the Southlands (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, book two)
By Caroline Carlson
Published 2014 by HarperCollins

WARNING: There be spoilers ahead (probably). Read my review of book one here.

Hilary Westfield is definitely not a High Society girl anymore. After her adventures on the high seas, she is most definitely a pirate. In fact, she is the fearsome pirate known as the Terror of the Southlands. The fearsome description is up for contention, though - the President of the VNHLP thinks she has exhibited unpiratical behavior and demands she change her ways. But when an old friend is in trouble, will the Terror choose the VNHLP way or forge her own path?

If you haven't read my review of book one, you should maybe just go do that instead of reading this one because I'm pretty sure I'll be doing nothing but repeating myself. Magic Marks the Spot was one of my favorite books of last year (I even nominated it for the Cybils) and I was eagerly anticipating book two. I was thrilled to see the e-galley pop up and downloaded it right away. I had wanted to read the book immediately, but I ended up putting it off until closer to the release date and finished it just in time.

This book lived up to all my expectations and the lovely promise of book one. Book two has everything the first had and, like I said, I'm not sure I can say anything that I didn't say in my first review. I'll try to break it down as I did in my first review.

Characters: Hilary is still the charming and kick-butt hero from book one and the Gargoyle is still my absolute favorite. I enjoyed that we got to see all the delightful characters from the first book but also were introduced to and spent more time with new characters. I liked having Claire along for the ride in this adventure, though I did miss Jasper. But I loved Cannonball Jack - there are just so many memorable characters!

Plot: once again, the story is action-packed, full of twists and turns and adventure that will keep readers flipping the pages at a furious pace. It is not quite as exciting as the plot in book one, but by the end, I was all in and wondering if there would be a book three!

Villains: some of the bad guys from book one are still being bad guys in book two, but some new bad guys come on the scene as well. I loved seeing Hilary's interactions with Philomena and her suspicions about how terrible she really is. While is still wasn't terribly difficult to spot the villain, it's such a delightful journey that I didn't mind.

The storytelling, the magic, the humor, the heart: just as good as book one and I love it all!

Though my ARC didn't include it, I was thrilled to see a page at the end marking a spot for a sneak peek at book three, which means more adventures for the Terror and her crew! I cannot wait! If you haven't read these books, please do and share them with all the young readers in your life!

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


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Release Day Review: Of Monsters and Madness

Of Monsters and Madness
By Jessica Verday
Expected publication September 9, 2014 by EgmontUSA

Annabel Lee will never forget the life she had in Siam with her mother but now she must try to make a new life with her father in Philadelphia. Her father expects her to be completely different than she is used to and things only grow more complicated when she meets his mysterious assistant, Edgar. Or is it Allan?

I'm a big fan of historical fiction, particularly when it features a real-life figure. This book explores Edgar Allan Poe's history and the inspiration behind his works. I was pretty jazzed to get started with this one.

The best I can say about it is that it's a quick read - I read about half the book in about 45 minutes one night. Unfortunately, not much else about the book stands out. Annabel is a pretty flat character - yes, she wants to be a doctor, but that's about the only personal information we get about her. It seems like Verday wants to set up a mysterious tone in the novel, what with the intrigue surrounding Edgar and Allan, but it's really just not that interesting. It was clear to me early on what the story was regarding those two, so I wasn't terribly invested in reaching the ending. Additionally, while I'm all for creating new stories for well-known characters and people, Verday's take on Poe was just too out there for me. The romance doesn't work, the writing is just bland, and the ending is very unsatisfactory. It just didn't work for me.

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Lug, Dawn of the Ice Age

Lug, Dawn of the Ice Age
By Dave Zeltser
Expected publication September 9, 2014 by Egmont USA

Lug just wants to paint. Unfortunately, that is not a proper caveman activity, so he must keep his art hidden. When Lug is banished, he discovers some kindred spirits and, together, they must use their knowledge of the changing environment to unite their clans if they hope to survive.

I downloaded the galley of this one because I thought it could be fun. It's recommended for fans of Ice Age, which I enjoyed, and as usual, I'm always looking to get more middle-grade reading in. This book just missed the mark for me.

I think my main issue is that I'm not sure what audience this book is for. It's listed as a middle-grade title, which is a bit of an amorphous category but which I usually think of as 9-12 or 10-14 years old. In some ways, I think this book falls into that category. The humor mostly fits in that age range, and some of the subtleties of the plot would set it there as well. However, this felt much more to me like an early elementary book, one for ages 7-9, more along the lines of Captain Underpants and his ilk. It's nearly 200 pages, which makes it a little long for this younger age range, but it is also illustrated (though the illustrations did not appear in my galley). Though I couldn't be sure without seeing a finished copy, I also think the font is larger, more akin to an early elementary book than a middle-grade one.

So why does all this matter? Well, it doesn't really for the right reader. But I found it just a bit irksome that I couldn't pinpoint the audience for this one. However, it's not my only qualm with the book either. Nothing about the story felt fully developed. Lug's painting is perhaps the thing explained most clearly, but even that could have done with more development. His banishment happens rather abruptly, as does most of what follows and the ending feels quite rushed and unsatisfying. I was really struck by the idea of a kid facing the dawn of the Ice Age, being the only one who recognizes it for what it is and how he would handle that. Unfortunately, this book didn't quite deliver on that idea. I wanted more than this book offered, though I think it will definitely find fans (the illustrated novel is, as I'm sure you know, very hot right now).

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