Friday, May 29, 2015

Review: The Great Good Summer

The Great Good Summer
By Liz Garton Scanlon
Published 2015 by Beach Lane Books

Ivy Green's mama is missing. She followed Hallelujah Dave to the Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida and Ivy can't really understand why. So, when her new friend Paul says they should go find her, Ivy can't come up with a reason to disagree. But traveling from Texas to Florida with just your saved-up babysitting money and very little information is not quite so easy.

So, this month has been a bit crazy for me, both personally and professionally, and I haven't really gotten as much reading done as usual. Additionally, most of what I read hasn't really stuck with me - there have been a lot of just okay or disappointing reads for me this month. I'm afraid that The Great Good Summer was one of those books for me.

I'm going to go right ahead and admit that the reason I didn't enjoy this book all that much is entirely personal. I am not a religious person and I don't read books that focus much on religion all that often (despite a pretty deep interest in cults and fringe religions). Obviously, from the blurb, I knew this book was going to focus on religion pretty deeply. I was still willing to give it a shot, mostly because I wanted to see how this story would play out (though, as a side note, I find stories of mothers abandoning their children particularly heart-wrenching).

What I will give this book is that it highlights the life of a young person who is deeply religious in a way that one doesn't often see in mainstream fiction. The focus of the book is not on Ivy's religion or her struggle to figure out what she believes (which is often the case with what is typically considered religious fiction) - the focus of the book is Ivy's longing to understand why her mother left and how she can get her back.

But, there were points for me when Ivy's religion seemed like an excuse for her to willfully ignore the evidence and logical conclusions in front of her and that really frustrated me and hindered my enjoyment of the story. Additionally, as I said, stories in which the mother leaves her children behind are particularly difficult for me to read - not that I have personal experience with this kind of narrative but simply because it is very difficult for me to understand the mind of a mother who does so. This example was especially difficult because Ivy's mother leaves to follow an obvious charlatan and swindler with no explanation given to the child who adores her (not to mention the loving husband she also leaves behind).

Ivy's short temper and her reluctance to claim Paul as her friend were also extremely irritating aspects of this novel. I also struggled to believe the entire road trip aspect of the story - it was extremely uncharacteristic for Ivy (and likely Paul as well) and the lack of suspicion on the part of the adults was a bit unsettling.

Ultimately, this was a not a book for me, but I can see this appealing to a particular kind of reader.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: The Devil You Know

The Devil You Know
By Trish Doller
Expected publication June 2, 2015 by Bloomsbury USA Children's Books

Arcadia craves adventure. Since her mother died, it's been her, her father and her younger brother and guess who's been the one doing most of the parenting? So, when she meets a pair of good-looking cousins at a party, she sees the opportunity to let loose a little. And when they invite her and a friend on a spontaneous road trip, Cadie decides to seize the moment. Unfortunately, one of the guys is not who he seems - he might, in fact, be a killer.

This book has been getting quite a bit of buzz and I'd heard good things about Doller's previous novels so when I saw I was auto-approved for this on NetGalley, I downloaded and dived in right away.

I'm pretty conflicted about this one. On the positive side, I really liked Cadie and it was incredibly easy to relate to her struggles, even though I didn't go through anything quite like she did. I think a lot of teens these days will understand her desire to please everyone and the frustration that comes along with trying so hard to be perfect all the time. Cadie's mom has also instilled some great values in her and Cadie is not afraid to voice her opinions. This means, as a whole, the book is pretty feminist and sex-positive, which I think is absolutely what teens need to hear. Additionally, this book screams summer in the best way - campfire parties, a little misbehaving, steamy weather, refreshing water, spontaneous road trips. It made me miss my teenage summers. Another bonus is the awesome chemistry between Cadie and her mysterious men - this book is swoon-inducing and will definitely make you want to curl up with someone.

But, on the not so positive, this book is completely predictable. I mean, I am notoriously bad at guessing twists but I saw this one coming almost from the first instant the boys are introduced. Additionally, the thriller aspect of the story doesn't really kick into gear until the last 50 pages or thereabouts, so for readers looking forward to this aspect of the novel, they'll have to spend quite some time waiting on it. The good news is that this book is fast-paced and easy to devour, so it shouldn't take interested readers too long to get to the thriller part.

Ultimately, I enjoyed it, though I wish the twist had been a bit less obvious. I'm definitely interested in reading Doller's other books, particularly since I think the most successful parts of this one were in the first part of the book (the more contemporary realistic part).

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

Review: All Unquiet Things

All Unquiet Things
By Anna Jarzab, read by Mike Chamberlain and Allyson Ryan
Published 2010 by Listening Library

Carly was one of the brightest stars at Brighton Day school. And then she was murdered. Now, her cousin Audrey - whose father is in prison for the murder - wants to find the truth of what happened to Carly. And the only one who can help her is Neily - Carly's ex-boyfriend, a boy who was under a great deal of suspicion himself. Can the two uncover whether the right man is in prison for the crime?

As I mentioned recently, I've gone back to the beginnings of my TBR whenever I need to download a new audiobook, so you'll be seeing quite a few older titles appearing on the blog (particularly as I get back into my long runs). This is one such title.

I really wanted to like this book. I enjoy a good mystery and, like most people, I have a bit of a fascination with private schools and the lives of the kids who attend them. But really, I didn't like this book very much. It's very slow to develop and this is basically a death knell for an audiobook. I actually feel like the entire first section of this book could be cut out and it would be a much more interesting story. I think the first section - part one of Neily's story - is meant to establish some background on the characters and Carly's murder before Neily and Audrey begin their amateur investigation. Unfortunately, it's really just kinda boring and annoying. It didn't put me in the right frame of mind when it came to Neily - I found him off-putting. I think it was supposed to show me how much he loved Carly, but I got more of an uncomfortable vibe about their relationship. Whatever this first section of the book was supposed to do, it didn't get me started on the right foot with this novel.

On the whole, I didn't much care about the characters here. Where I think this book succeeds is the mystery - I definitely didn't see the revelations surrounding the murder coming. As pieces were revealed, it was clear that Jarzab had really taken her time constructing this aspect of her novel (a fact made abundantly clear in the interview that followed the story) and I'm glad she did.

While I didn't particularly care for this book, I'd be interested in reading another of Jarzab's titles, this time in print and seeing how I feel about her writing then.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Review: The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak

The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak
By Brian Katcher
Published 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books

Zak Duquette is about to fail health (I know, right?!). In order to save his skin, he is forced to miss Washingcon, the one convention he looks forward to every year, and instead participate in Quiz Bowl. At least he can try to get to know Ana Watson this way. But when Ana's little brother sneaks out to Washingcon (Zak may have made it sound a little TOO epic), all bets are off. Now Ana and Zak must work together to find Clayton - before both of them are in serious trouble.

I'll admit that my primary interest in this book was because of the author. Katcher's Almost Perfect was one of my favorite books in grad school, so seeing his name attached to something new caught my attention immediately.

This book is similar in that it's mostly a romance between two quite dissimilar characters, but it's different by being a bit more conventional than his previous award-winning title. Unfortunately, I thought this one was not as good. I really wanted to like it, because, as I said, I adored the previous title by Katcher and couldn't wait to read another of his titles.

I feel like conventional is actually a pretty good descriptor for this book. It's not terrible - I enjoyed it while I was reading it and I think Katcher still has a way with words - but it's not really anything new or different either. Nerd culture is very in right now (at least, I would argue that) and I think Katcher capitalizes on that a bit with the character of Zak and the majority of events taking place at Washingcon - a big convention of all things nerd. Additionally, it's very much a conventional romance - a boy and a girl who don't think they have much in common at first discover their similarities and end up falling for each other (sorry if you think that's a spoiler, but I thought it was pretty obvious). Don't get me wrong - there are other things going on in this book, but if you're looking for a bare-bones plot, it's a star-crossed romance. Finally, the plot twist that the book takes toward the end was completely out of left field and didn't really work for me. It felt way too tacked on and ill-placed.

Where I think the book most succeeds is in the less conventional things - when Zak and Ana discover each other's loss and begin to wonder how that has shaped their present day selves. These parts of the story felt the most realistic and interesting, so I wish Katcher had focused a bit more on this instead of hijinks at the Con. Overall, the book was fun and entertaining, but not what I hoped for.

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Ms. Rapscott's Girls

Ms. Rapscott's Girls
By Elise Primavera
Published 2015 by Dial Books

Four young girls find themselves shipped off to the Great Rapscott School for Daughters of Busy Parents. There are supposed to be five. The four who arrive safely begin learning the lessons of Great Rapscott and soon, will venture out in hopes of finding the fifth girl.

This e-galley came to me as part of Penguin's Young Readers Author Program. I was excited because it sounded like it could be a quick and fun read.

Unfortunately, this book just wasn't my cup of tea. It is full of Capitalized Phrases that are supposed to Accentuate the Important Bits but really just annoyed me. It is twee as all get out - and if you'd asked me prior to reading to define twee, I couldn't have, but now I know - it is this book. It's fascinating because I can see what company this book should keep - Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mary Poppins, even a more upbeat version of Series of Unfortunate Events - and it's full of books I love and this one I just didn't.

The characters are never really differentiated, at least not in any truly meaningful way, which made it difficult for me to really care much about what happened to them or even feel much sympathy that they were packed off to Great Rapscott in the first place. I think we are supposed to believe that the girls grow up during the course of the story, but it felt very superficial to me. Additionally, the audience for this is a bit hard for me to peg down - strong new chapter book readers? It reads a bit too young for me to think middle-grade readers will really find it appealing, but perhaps a second or third-grader would enjoy it.

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: Redwall

Redwall (Redwall, book one)
By Brian Jacques, performed by a full cast
Published 2005 by Listening Library

Cluny the Scourge is about to lead an attack on Redwall Abbey and it is up to young Matthias, a mouse who longs to be a hero, to discover his birthright and protect the Abbey.

My fiance and I recently took a trip to Maine, planning to settle some details for our upcoming wedding. We also planned an excursion for a few days up the coast, a chance to take a small break. Both of these plans meant several hours in the car, so we decided we needed an audiobook to listen to. Since we were picking one at the last minute, it was a bit of a scramble. I stumbled upon this one and (jokingly) suggested it. I should have known better.

The Redwall series is one of his favorites from childhood - he actually met Brian Jacques in high school, I think. I have never read any of them - I'm not big into animal fantasy. But, it is a classic series, so I planned on reading it eventually, and I knew my fiance wanted to reread it as well. So I guess it was lucky for us that the downloadable audiobook was available when we needed something to listen to.

It's a pretty enjoyable story and I can definitely see the appealing factors - heroism, puzzles, quests, memorable characters, fierce battles. It has all the makings of an epic story (and I'm quite surprised that it's only been made into a film once). There were a few moments when the story lost my interest (though that may have had more to do with my travel fatigue than the story itself) but for the most part, the action kept moving nicely. I loved the riddles as Matthias tries to figure out where Martin the Warrior hid his great sword. What I think Jacques has done best is the creation of a plethora of fascinating characters. They are all unique and memorable and I really enjoyed getting to know each of them (though some I wish had been more clearly developed).

My main quibbles with this comes from the format. I think this actually works quite well as an audiobook - there is enough action to keep listeners engaged throughout, though the number of characters could be overwhelming. However, the version we listened to was performed by a full cast and it was a bit too much for me. In fact, it was extremely off-putting initially and, actually, we mostly made fun of the ridiculous accents throughout the story. Because each character is performed by a different actor (or simply a different voice), that certainly helps eliminate any confusion over the characters. But, as I said, most of them are given quite absurd accents (Cluny the Scourge being, by far, the worst), which actually makes the book difficult to listen to at times. When a listener is focusing more on how something is being said instead of what is actually being said, it's not really a good thing. Eventually, we were mostly able to ignore the accents and lose ourselves in the story, but it was pretty difficult at first.

Will I continue the series? I'd like to, but I've got several other things I'm much more excited about first, so we'll see when I can find time for it.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Love, Aubrey

Love, Aubrey
By Suzanne LaFleur, read by Becca Battoe
Published 2009 by Listening Library

Aubrey's life hasn't been the same since the accident, but she never expected it to get this bad. She is all set to start a new life on her own, until her grandmother shows up with other plans. Now Aubrey is having to adjust to a new way of living and wondering if things will ever be the same again.

So, I decided to go way back to the beginning of my TBR when I needed a new audiobook to listen to. Unsurprisingly, most of the things on my TBR were not available as downloadable audiobooks, but I persevered, planning on downloading the first one I could find that was available. This book was the winner.

Unfortunately, I feel mostly ambivalent about this one. In the beginning, it reminded me of Summer of the Gypsy Moths (which was, of course, published much later than this one) and I struggled with the believability of the first part of this story. Thankfully, that didn't last terribly long before we are pushed into the main part of the story - Aubrey living with her grandmother and adjusting to the fact that life is going to be much different from now on. However, I struggled with this part as well. I realize, of course, that grief looks different on everyone and even on the same person in different situations. But Aubrey's form of grief was particularly upsetting to me. In fact, there is so much vomiting in this book that, at times, I began to feel ill just listening to it. Perhaps that's an overly sympathetic reaction from me, but I certainly didn't enjoy that aspect of the story.

Additionally, once Aubrey is taken in by her grandmother, things seem a bit too tidy - she makes a friend quite easily, one who happens to have a little sister and loving parents (who fulfill those roles for Aubrey as well). Though she is reluctant at first to cooperate with her new school counselor, it's pretty clear that she will and that things will work out for her when she does. Much like Gypsy Moths, I appreciated that Aubrey's happy ending was perhaps not the one that would be expected. I think it worked well and I would have been disappointed in a different ending, I think.

As an audio, this worked all right, though, as I said, all the vomiting was a bit difficult to listen to (not that there was actual vomiting noises - that would have been much worse). I thought Battoe did a lovely job distinguishing between characters - I particularly loved Gram and Bridget's younger sister's (whose name escapes me at the moment) voices.

Ultimately, an interesting read that is both quite sad but also shows a great amount of growth.