September 30, 2014

Review: The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth

The Stratford Zoo By Ian Lendler
Art by Zack Giallongo
Available now from First Second (Macmillan)
Review copy

At night, at the Stratford Zoo, the animals escape their enclosures - some put on a play, others watch.  In THE STRATFORD ZOO MIDNIGHT REVUE PRESENTS MACBETH, a lion stars as a Macbeth who keeps eating his enemies and a lioness as a Lady Macbeth who has very stubborn laundry.

This kid-friendly retelling of Macbeth is vibrant and funny.  Artist Zack Giallongo (BROXO) delivers bright art with creative use of panels and frequent side gags.  Author Ian Lendler distills Macbeth to its essence and adds a bit of ketchup.  The frame story, of the other animals reacting to the play, inject some humor to the tragedy, which is a great way to keep the younger audience interested.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays and THE STRATFORD ZOO MIDNIGHT REVUE PRESENTS MACBETH does it plenty of justice, even if it is an irreverent take.  All of the famous moments are translated, even though the page count is quite lean.

I thought THE STRATFORD ZOO MIDNIGHT REVUE PRESENTS MACBETH was absolutely hilarious and charming.  I certainly hope it is the beginning of a series of graphic adaptations of Shakespeare.  It's a crowded field, but this effort stands out.

September 29, 2014

Review: Transgender Lives: Complex Voices, Complex Stories

Transgender Lives By Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Available now from Twenty-First Century Books
Review copy

TRANSGENDER LIVES: COMPLEX VOICES, COMPLEX STORIES is a brief introduction to trans* and genderqueer issues, history, terminology, and experiences.  When I say brief, I mean less than a hundred pages.  It is a topic that  could  easily fill a much larger book, so some sections are short-changed.

I would say the history section is most disappointing.  Author Kristin Cronn-Mills really reaches, throwing in any bit and person of history that is slightly non-gender conforming.  Given the limited page space, I think the section would've benefited from a tighter focus.

Where TRANSGENDER LIVES shines are the sections based on individual's accounts of their own lives.  The people interviewed vary in age quite a bit, which is nice, but don't really vary in race.  Each person prefers different terminology and has a very different personal history and relationship with their body, which was fascinating to read about.  Fans of these sections should read BEYOND MAGENTA.

I also liked the little facts that are sprinkled throughout the other sections and the discussion of terminology.  The vocabulary is changing all the time, and no doubt TRANSGENDER LIVES will soon be outdated in that respect.  But how and why the language changes is truly interesting.

TRANSGENDER LIVES is a nice little introduction, sure to be helpful to teens struggling with their identity and families seeking to learn more to support them.  More in-depth books are needed, but that doesn't mean there isn't also a need for something as approachable as this slender volume.

September 26, 2014

Review: Horrorstör

Horrorstör By Grady Hendrix
Available now from Quirk
Review copy

Welcome to Orsk, an obvious Ikea knockoff.  There is one path through the store, a bunch of disaffected employees, and a few employees who really buy into the store and its policies.  One of the locations in Cleveland has been suffering from nightly break-ins and damage, so the manager decides to stay behind with a couple of employees to catch the culprit.

HORRORSTÖR is a haunted-house story with a little satire of minimum wage work for greedy corporations.  I really enjoyed the slow build in the first half, with small things going wrong like a camera showing something different than what a person sees or walking in a circle in a place with one path.  The shifting geography reminded me of HOUSE OF LEAVES in a good way, although
HORRORSTÖR is a much less ambitious novel.

HORRORSTÖR is sized like an Ikea catalog (down to the thickness), and each chapter is named after a piece of furniture and started with a drawing of that item.  As the novel continues, the furniture gets more sinister.  I liked the idea of this signpost, but thought the change from benign to cruel furniture was very abrupt.  Honestly, the whole second half is much quicker than the first.  The denouement and set up of the next novel, PLANET BABY, happened so quickly I felt like I had to have missed something.

But HORRORSTÖR is an effective bit of horror populated by fairly likeable characters.  Horror has a tendency to star jerks, so that you enjoy it more when they die off.  It seemed like HORRORSTÖR might go that way, but even the by-the-book manager becomes more friendly and appreciated by the other characters as the story goes on.  Protagonist Amy is a once-promising student whose life plans went awry.  I'm sure many readers can identify with her.

HORRORSTÖR never quite uses its premise to its full extent, but it has a great atmosphere and a chilling ending.  I really enjoyed how well-constructed it was (like a good piece of furniture).  Little things from the beginning, like the tools the employees carry and which shelves have weaknesses and mysterious phone calls, come back to be important.  Grady Hendrix definitely thought the story out.

September 25, 2014

Review: Afterworlds

Afterworlds Book one of a duology
By Scott Westerfeld
Available now from Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy

AFTERWORLDS, the latest effort from the hugely popular Scott Westerfeld, is two books in one.  Darcy Patel's story will appeal to fans of contemporary novels, while Lizzie's story will appeal to paranormal fans.

Darcy is moving out thanks to the huge advance she just got for her first novel and unwritten sequel.  She's going to live in New York where the writers are.  There, she discovers that maybe it wasn't best to rely on her younger sister to budget (because who knew how many mops she would need?) and falls in love with another author, who is also making her YA debut.  It's a bit fairytale, except for the fact that Darcy's girlfriend has secrets.

Lizzie just survived a terrorist attack by pretending to be dead.  In fact, she pretended so well that she crossed over to the world of the dead and became a psychopomp.  There she meets Yamaraj, who starts teaching her what she needs to know to survive.  But an encounter with a pedophile's victim inspires her to start getting more active with her new powers.  Her story is gripping from that first, horrifying chapter.  It's no wonder that a publishing company would pay the big bucks for her story.  (It made me think of the first chapter of Beth Revis's debut book, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.  It is only similar in how gripping and terrifying it is, but it's easy to envision how a publicity campaign could be enacted around it.)

Lizzie's story is AFTERWORLDS, the book Darcy wrote.  As Darcy's section progresses, it becomes clear that we're reading the edited version of the in-story AFTERWORLDS.  We also learn the twist: the original draft has an unhappy ending.  Darcy's dive into the world of publishing - editor's letters, meeting other authors, agents - will determine whether she changes the ending or keeps it.

Each girl's story is entertaining on its own merits, although most readers will prefer one or the other just based on their own preferred genre.  Either the odd chapters or even chapters can be read on their own, if that is preferred, although the two stories go together in interesting ways.  Lizzie's story has more action and terror, with a hint of romance.  Darcy's story has more romance, with lots of meta discussion  about Lizzie's story.  For instance, is Darcy appropriating her own culture by making Yamaraj the romantic hero?  Both heroines grow in interesting ways throughout their stories.  I took longer to warm up to Darcy (that terrible budget!), but by the end I liked both girls.

I'm sure I'll be back for UNTITLED PATEL next year.  (There is going to be a sequel, right?)  AFTERWORLDS is a different sort of book, and for me it was a successful experiment indeed.

September 24, 2014

Review: Salt & Storm

Salt and Storm By Kendall Kulper
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

Avery Roe is supposed to be the witch of Prince Island.  But her mother took her from her grandmother, the current witch, and is keeping her imprisoned.  When Avery foresees her own murder, she knows she must become the witch if she is to survive.  Her only hope is newcomer Tane, who has his own magic.

I was drawn into the world of SALT & STORM, which is basically our world, on the eve of whale hunting.  Obviously, the magic in the book wasn't real, although sailors and whalers were a superstitious lot.  I really enjoyed the book's focus on culture and community, how knowledge and art can be lost forever as people die out and as more dominant cultures take over.  Avery and Tane are both the last of their kind, and both are merely half trained.

(I did appreciate debut author Kendall Kulper's end note, which talks about what in SALT & STORM is based in history, what is made up, and why Avery and Tane both have names no one would have.)

The romance left me cold at times.  Avery and Tane are both headstrong, passionate, and high-handed people.  For all that there isn't much real conflict between them, they can bring the drama and I found it a little tiring.  At the same time, I did believe they felt for each other.  But the truly interesting figure in the book is Avery's mother.  She starts out a real villain, keeping her daughter from her destiny and letting the island's magic die.  But her history and motives and feelings really get fleshed out as Avery discovers more about the Roes.  I do admit, however, that I longed for Avery to just tell her mom about her vision of impending doom.  (Yes, even back when Avery was representing her mother as the Source of Everything Wrong with the World.)

SALT & STORM is full of intriguing magic and a legacy of powerful women with fatal flaws.  It's great for historical fantasy fans looking for a standalone, as long as they can take a protagonist who is a bit of a drama llama.

September 23, 2014

In the Afterlight Green Prize Pack Giveaway!

I have a very special giveaway today, celebrating the release of "Sparks Rise" and IN THE AFTERLIFE.

Green Prize Pack (Click to see full size)
In The Darkest Minds trilogy by Alexandra Bracken, the green psi power is intelligence.  There are five different prize packs being given away, representing the five colors, so be sure to try to find them all.

Below is more information about the books, and then the giveaway!

The Darkest Minds In Time Never Fade Sparks Rise In the Afterlight
Available October 28, 2014
  Ruby can't look back. Fractured by an unbearable loss, she and the kids who survived the government's attack on Los Angeles travel north to regroup. Only Ruby can keep their highly dangerous prisoner in check. But with Clancy Gray, there's no guarantee you're fully in control, and everything comes with a price.

When the Children's League disbands, Ruby rises up as a leader and forms an unlikely allegiance with Liam's brother, Cole, who has a volatile secret of his own. There are still thousands of other Psi kids suffering in government "rehabilitation camps" all over the country. Freeing them--revealing the governments unspeakable abuses in the process--is the mission Ruby has claimed since her own escape from Thurmond, the worst camp in the country.

But not everyone is supportive of the plan Ruby and Cole craft to free the camps. As tensions rise, competing ideals threaten the mission to uncover the cause of IANN, the disease that killed most of America's children and left Ruby and others with powers the government will kill to keep contained. With the fate of a generation in their hands, there is no room for error. One wrong move could be the spark that sets the world on fire.
ABOUT SPARKS RISE (The Darkest Minds: 2.5 e-Book release)
Available online September 2, 2014
This New eBook Novella connects the last two novels in The Darkest Minds trilogy.
Sam didn't think things could get worse at Thurmand rehabilitation camp. Then the Reds arrive. Everyone assumed the kids with firepower had been killed years ago. Instead they were taken away, brainwashed, and returned as terrifyingly effective guards. To her horror, Sam recognizes one of them: Lucas, the one spark of light in Sam's dark childhood. 

Lucas has a deadly secret--he beat the brutal training that turned his fellow Reds into mindless drones. When Sam defends herself against an attack by a vile PSF guard and faces a harrowing punishment, Lucas must risk his everything to save her.
Alexandra Bracken was born and raised in Arizona, but moved east to study at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.  She recently relocated to New York City, where she worked in publishing and lives in a charming apartment overflowing with books. 
Visit Alexandra online at
Follow Alexandra on Twitter
& Instagram
Like Alexandra on Facebook
Follow Alexandra on Tumblr
Visit Hyperion Teens at the Official Site
& on Twitter
Be sure to read my reviews of THE DARKEST MINDS and NEVER FADE.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

September 22, 2014

Review: All Those Broken Angels

All Those Broken Angels By Peter Adam Salomon
Available now from Flux (Llewelyn)
Review copy

Richard Harrison's best friend went missing when they were six.  He knows Melanie is dead, because she's been haunting him ever since.  When a girl shows up claiming to be Melanie, he knows that he has to discredit her.  But the truth may be even stranger than a boy who believes himself haunted can dream.

I really enjoyed the way my perception of ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS shifted throughout the story.  It is not long, but it is unpredictable.  Often, people are both right and wrong at the same time, mostly because no one would guess what is actually happening.

ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS does have strong horror elements, which I didn't guess from the blurb and cover.  (I was expecting a contemporary with a light paranormal edge.)  The shadow that Richard perceives seems to mostly help him, but it has hurt him unconsciously, alienated him, and proves to be a danger to some other people.  The new Melanie has her own terrible secrets that are grounded in a more terrible reality than sinister shadows.

Everything comes together very neatly at the end of ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS.  I didn't mind too much, because the question of who done it wasn't the point.  The relationship between Richard and Melanie (and Richard and Melanie) is what drives the novel, along with the terrifying atmosphere.  I really flew through this novel, because author Peter Adam Salomon keeps the pages turning.

September 18, 2014

Review: The Witch's Boy

The Witch's Boy By Kelly Barnhill
Available now from Algonquin Young Readers
Review copy

Ned and his twin brother build a raft, but it is not seaworthy, and Tam dies.  Ned survives only through Tam's soul and his mother's magic.  But the villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived, especially because the experience left Ned without words.  Meanwhile, practical Áine lives in the forest with her bandit father, who is being overtaken by a strange force.

THE WITCH'S BOY is a lovely book.  Ned and Áine are both hugely likeable in different ways.  Ned has had to struggle with himself his whole life, and struggling with an external force for once (magic) helps him gain better control of himself.  Áine is super practical (it bears mentioning again), but hurt by her father abandoning her for greed.  She's cold and reluctant to trust, but a good person to have on one's side.  I quite enjoyed that their parents were a crucial part of the story.  Ned's father and Áine's mother aren't mentioned much, but do have actual personalities.  The Bandit King and Sister Witch are much bigger figures.  Especially Sister Witch, whose moment of weakness sets most of the plot in motion.  (But how could she let her other child die too?)

The mythology of the world is very interesting.  There are nine Stones, three sources of magic - most gone from the world - , and wolves.  There's a little provincial kingdom with a tough and benevolent queen, and a bigger, more worldly kingdom with a young tyrant.  It all comes together quite smoothly, each bit having its place in a tale about the importance of words and of firmly doing good.  And, well, I was a huge fan of the magic having a personality and voice of its own.  The concept of it was not just interesting, but well executed.

There's a speech at the end that's a touch too didactic for me, but I think it is well suited to the middle grade age group.  It's not so didactic as to be condescending.  Much of the rest of the book isn't particularly subtle, but it is not like being hit over the head with the message either.  It is just every present.  THE WITCH'S BOY isn't quite a fairytale, but it has a bit of that atmosphere, with few extraneous details, a foreboding tone, and a logic that works more strongly for the story than the real world.

THE WITCH'S BOY is a terrific little fantasy.  The violence is non graphic and most of the tyrant's cruelties are just hinted at, so I think this will appeal to the younger MG crowd as well as the older.  The length and complexity do push it more towards the older side.

September 17, 2014

Review: The Whispering Skull

The Whispering Skull Book two of the Lockwood & Co. series
By Jonathan Stroud
Available now from Disney Hyperion
Review copy

I talked to a friend lately who was afraid to read the Lockwood & Co. series, because it might tarnish her memories of the Bartimaeus trilogy.  I understand the impulse.  You don't want to suddenly realize that the things you loved in childhood were stupid and silly and subpar.  But I tried to reassure her that there was no fear.  THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE was a wonderful ghost story that very much deserved its Cybils win.

THE WHISPERING SKULL picks up shortly after THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE leaves off.  It's been just long enough for Lucy, Lockwood, and George to get in a spot of trouble.  They might have resolved a major haunting and, in Lucy's case, made unprecedented contact with a Visitor, but they still have to pay the bills.  And there's always a chance of things going wrong when you're a group of kids facing off with the restless dead.

I liked how THE WHISPERING SKULL further developed the world of Lockwood & Co.  The divergence from our world goes on to before the dead started rising, as proved by a paranormal artifact that begins wreaking havoc.  I also felt like THE WHISPERING SKULL was much clearer about when it was set, something I had trouble with in THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE.

My main problem with THE WHISPERING SKULL is that it focuses quite a bit on George, who I find least interesting of the main trio.  I normally adore bookworm characters, but I have little patience for how he has a tendency to put others in danger.  At the same time, I like that Stroud isn't afraid to have his main characters be abrasive.  You don't have to like someone to enjoy their story.

THE WHISPERING SKULL, like THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE, leaves off with a major revelation.  It looks like the third book will explore the mysteries of Lockwood's past.  I'd be sure to read it even without that hook.  I thoroughly enjoy the spooky world of these books and Lucy's wry narration.  She's one of the practical heroines of my heart.

September 16, 2014

Review: Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters By Lauren Beukes
Available now from Mulholland (Little, Brown)
Review copy
Read my review of The Shining Girls

This cover (reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk's INVISIBLE MONSTERS) doesn't do justice to the strange cornucopia of imagery within.  There is a killer stalking Detroit, and he's leaving behind mutilated bodies.  Bodies that he sees as art.

BROKEN MONSTERS switches between a number of point of views including  Detective Versado, who is hunting the killer; Layla, her daughter; Jonno, a videoblogger looking for his big break; TK, a homeless man who works at a church; and Clayton Broom, a homeless artist looking for a break.  At first their lives seem completely separate, but they intertwine as the case goes on.  It's a technique I always enjoy, seeing the pieces come together.

It took me a touch longer to get into BROKEN MONSTERS than Lauren Beukes' other novels.  It's quite grotesque, and many of the characters aren't that likeable.  They're well rounded, but they're selfish and self deluding and the kind of human that is sometimes hard to spend time with.  But I was drawn into the case, which just keeps getting stranger, until a surreally frightening climax.

One particularly fun twist of the procedural (beyond the supernatural elements) was the use of the internet.  There are small passages of subreddits, police-line phone calls, and other ephemera of modern life.  (Some of it reads a little off, but most is pretty accurate.)  The population's reactions to a bizarre serial killer seemed quite authentic, scared and unhelpful and sometimes unjustly ignored.

I recommend BROKEN MONSTERS to fans of Stephen King.  Lauren Beukes is continuing to expand her genre-bending prowess, and BROKEN MONSTERS takes on many elements of horror.  The how isn't always answered, which just makes it scarier.

September 15, 2014

Diversiverse Review: Gates of Thread and Stone

Gates of Thread and Stone First in a series
By Lori M. Lee
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon)
Review copy

Kai lives with her brother Reev in the Labyrinth, a poor part of Ninurta.  She delivers messages, he bounces, and somehow they make ends meet.  But one day Reev disappears, apparently pressed into service for an outlaw.  Kai heads out with her best friend Avan to rescue him.

I loved GATES OF THREAD AND STONE.  There were small things here and there that bothered me, but I was really swept away by the novel.  Kai can manipulate time, which is a very dangerous secret indeed.  It's a power she has trouble resisting using, because who hasn't wanted to make time slow down or speed up at times?  But as amazing as it is, it can't help her rescue Reev.  The devotion between the siblings was very sweet, and definitely part of what drew me in.

I liked that GATES OF THREAD AND STONE was a bit ambivalent about their co-dependance.  Avan is clearly interested in Kai, but unsure of how much room she has in her life for anyone but Reev.  Kai's not good at giving him positive signs.  Of course, she's wary because she knows she's a homebody and Avan is a partier.  He has a reputation, well known for sleeping around to secure places to stay and escape his abusive father.  Kai, who is utterly devoted to her family, has trouble understanding that Avan does not want to go home even if his father no longer actually physically abuses him anymore.  It was a pretty realistic flaw, even though I wished at times she would understand Avan better.

I also really loved the world.  I liked getting a sense of the city, and the division between the poor and rich.  When Kai and Avan leave the city, it really broadens her world (and not just geographically).  The true nature of the despotic ruler was quite a reveal, and really opened the way for much of what happens in the rest of the novel.  I'm very intrigued about what will happen next in this series, given the upheaval the main characters cause and go through themselves.  There are a lot of powerful forces at work behind the scenes of their lives.

I recommend GATES OF THREAD AND STONE to fans of desperate siblings, desperate best friends, slow burning romance, girls rescuing boys, and people forging new lives for themselves against the odds.  I think the style will appeal to fans of Robin McKinley.

Diversiverse is hosted by Aarti of BookLust.  It is all about finding new authors, from a whole range of backgrounds, to read.  Quoting:
Reading diversely may require you to change your book-finding habits.  It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.
Lori M. Lee, the author of GATES OF THREAD AND STONE, is a debut author and lives in the United States.  She was born in Laos and immigrated to a Thailand refugee camp before immigrating to the US.  Fun fact from her website: "She doesn’t know her real birth date. Her legal one was given to her in the refugee camp. Apparently, the mountain villages don’t keep birth records. This means she is allowed to lie about her age."

September 12, 2014

Review: No One Needs to Know

No One Needs to Know By Amanda Grace
Available now from Flux (Llewellyn)
Review copy

I've enjoyed books by Mandy Hubbard (Amanda Grace is a psuedonym) and I try to read and review as much LGBTQ+ YA fiction as possible.  But I must admit, I found the synopsis of NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW somewhat off-putting.  Basically, Olivia falls for Zoey, who is dating her twin brother Liam.  I am not a fan of cheating stories, and it seemed like it would be a huge betrayal.

Surprisingly, Grace pulled it off.  The attraction between the girls grew in a subtle, organic way and there wasn't crazy hurtful drama.  I would've preferred no cheating at all, but I didn't find it terrible.

When NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW starts, Zoey and Olivia are fiercely arguing with each other after being paired together for a school project.  Olivia thinks Zoey always believes the worst of people, that they remember and care deeply about the rumors about her.  Zoey thinks Olivia is a mean girl, along with her best friend.  As the story goes on, both girls learn how wrong their impressions about each other were, because there's a lot more to people than the surface.  At the same time, they each realize that the other girl was pretty right about their faults, and they both take steps to grow.

There are lots of other traits to Zoey and Olivia, often opposing.  Zoey has a tight-knit but poor family.  Olivia and Liam are rich, but their parents are never home and Liam is drifting apart from Olivia as he grows up and tries to find himself.  It's a bit simplistic, but it works because NO ONE  NEEDS TO KNOW is really short.  The balance gets the themes across elegantly.

I thought NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW was a sweet little read.  It's a lovely YA romance with two likeable heroines and great character growth.  There are a bunch of cliches, but Grace does a good job of finding the depth beneath the surface, just like Olivia and Zoey.

September 11, 2014

Review: The Caller

The Caller Book three of the Shadowfell trilogy
By Juliet Marillier
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review of Raven Flight

Flint has been a steadfast inside man for the rebellion, but when THE CALLER opens, he's ready to abandon his post because of the tragic events of RAVEN FLIGHT.  One of the perils of reading so many books is that in the year between the second and third books of the Shadowfell trilogy, I'd forgotten what tragedy had happened.  It took me a couple of chapters to get back into the swing of things, but I managed.

Neryn has accepted her position as the Caller, and she has two more teachers to seek out before she uses her powers at the Gathering to depose the wicked king.  But Flint was bringing news: the king has found his own Caller.  The rebellion's plan was already a fragile thing, and now Neryn's role is more important than ever.

The Shadowfell trilogy is an enjoyable throwback to more traditional fantasy.  THE CALLER has an accelerated pace, compared to the gentle slowness of the first two books, but it makes sense given that it covers the culmination of a rebellion.  I enjoyed Flint's increased role in THE CALLER, as well as Neryn's tendency to be more proactive as she comes into her power.  I missed Tali, however, who is busy running the rebellion elsewhere for most of the novel.

Given that I was a little lost just from the break between books, I do not recommend picking up THE CALLER cold.  It might still be an exciting story, but one that lacks the build up.  I found it a very fitting conclusion to the first two books, and only wish there could be more.  I'm curious about how the characters who survive live, after.  But that is another story, and this one is complete.  I recommend the Shadowfell trilogy to fans of Jane Yolen and Lloyd Alexander.

September 10, 2014

Review: The Iron Trial

The Iron Trial Book one of the Magisterium
By Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Available now from Scholastic
Review copy

Callum Hunt's father has been training him his whole life for the test to enter the Magisterium - training him to fail, that is.  His mother was killed by one of the many wars the Magisterium was involved in, and Call's father determined to protect him from their sinister machinations.  But Call can't hide.

I am a huge fan of Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare usually manages to be entertaining.  Thus I had mixed but high hopes for THE IRON TRIAL.  And, after reading THE IRON TRIAL, "mixed" sums up my reaction pretty well.

I am a sucker for magic school stories.  There's something wonderful about that particular combination of the fantastic and the mundane.  The almost-failed-the-test Call is put into the same group as two high achievers: Aaron and Tamara.  Together, they sort sand.  Yeah, their magic lessons take awhile to get really interesting.  I did like the way Black and Clare showed that magic was work and shortcuts could go horribly awry.  I also liked the relationship between the three students, which develops pretty naturally.  (I didn't like that by the end of THE IRON TRIAL Aaron and Call had both developed special powers and Tamara hadn't.)

My main issue with THE IRON TRIAL is that Call acts incredibly guileless for someone who has been warned about the Magisterium his entire life.  He starts off telling the other students his suspicions, but he quickly falls into the patterns of school life and never thinks that anything that happens is sinister.  Perhaps his father could've gone into more depth about why Call should be wary, even though his father only has small pieces of the whole picture.

Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy the magic school story as well as the central friendship.  (THE IRON TRIAL doesn't do as much to distinguish itself from Harry Potter as it could, honestly.  Perhaps THE COPPER GAUNTLET will diverge farther.)  Fans of Percy Jackson will enjoy the diverse cast.  THE IRON TRIAL is a fun little read for young fantasy fans, but there's little to distinguish it from the current crop of middle grade fantasy.

September 9, 2014

Review: Blood of My Blood

Blood of My Blood Book three of the I Hunt Killers trilogy
By Barry Lyga
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy
Read my reviews of I Hunt Killers and Game

The I Hunt Killers trilogy comes to a violent conclusion in BLOOD OF MY BLOOD.  When GAME ended, Jasper, Connie, and Howie were each in mortal peril.  With Billy Dent on the loose, everyone else is pretty much in mortal peril too.  And, as the survivors are starting to realize, Billy and Jasper's history is more complicated than it first appears.

I am quite honestly not sure how I feel about all of the revelations.  I feel like half of them were awesome, and half were terrible and not what I wanted at all (even though I expected that's what was going on).  And I really can't talk about them in detail since I don't want to spoil any of the (many) twists in this review.

Suffice it to say, if you've enjoyed I HUNT KILLERS and GAME, then you need to read the conclusion of Jasper's story.  If you haven't read the first two books, you'll be totally lost trying to navigate BLOOD OF MY BLOOD.  It builds strongly on the events of the previous novels.

I'm sad to see these characters go, but I like how well the trilogy played itself out.  Another book would be stretching the premise far too thin.  I'm not sure if this is the ending I wanted for Jasper, but I'm well satisfied with it.

September 8, 2014

Review: Where I Belong

Where I Belong By Mary Downing Hahn
Available now from Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Review copy

Mary Downing Hahn was one of my favorite authors in elementary school, so I like to keep up with what she's putting out. WHERE I BELONG reminds me of STEPPING ON THE CRACKS, one of my personal favorites.  Both books have misfits coming together, bullying, and subplots about the effects of war.

Protagonist Brendan is a dreamy boy who failed sixth grade because he spent all his time in class drawing instead of doing his work.  Neither his teacher nor his foster mother know how to connect to him.  But in summer school, he makes a friend, Shea.  After school, he finds the perfect tree to build a tree house.   And there he meets the Green Man.

Brendan's real problem isn't his focus on art or his lack of attention to his other studies, but his lack of self esteem.  He's been passed around from home to home since he was born, and thinks that no one loves him, especially not his current foster mother Mrs. Clancey.  He thinks he's a constant disappointment to her and nothing but the source of a check.  When Shea reaches out to him, he's afraid to even attempt to make friends.  The only person Brendan can open up to about everything he's keeping inside is the Green Man, because the Green Man doesn't live in the real world of worries about the future and money and everything Brendan doesn't want to think about.

The bullying in WHERE I BELONG is intense.  There's a group of troublemakers that run about stealing and otherwise making trouble and Brendan often finds himself in their crosshairs due to his long hair.  Hahn is capable of nuanced bullies, but these boys are presented as just bad.  But really, the story is about Brendan, and he is so wonderfully drawn that I can forgive that flaw in the novel.

Brendan's voice is absorbing and poignant.  He is so down on himself, but so open to the magic in the world.  His journey to forging new connections, making friends and finding his place, is beautiful.  WHERE I BELONG isn't quite Hahn at her best, but it is a beautifully written story about a damaged, bullied boy finding his inner strength.  There's a sudden tragedy and other elements that push WHERE I BELONG a little toward the treacly side, but it just manages to stay on the right side of that line.

September 5, 2014

Review: 100 Sideways Miles

100 Sideways Miles By Andrew Smith
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy
Read my review of Grasshopper Jungle

GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE is one of the best books of the year, in my opinion.  So I was extremely excited to read 100 SIDEWAYS MILES, Andrew Smith's second book this year and first contemporary since his breakout novel WINGER.

First, I would highly recommend that you avoid reading the blurb.  The blurb focuses on events that happen somewhere around page 250 or a 288-page novel.  100 SIDEWAYS MILES isn't the type of novel to be ruined by spoilers, but it still kills a bit of the momentum.

Finn Easton has been an epileptic since the day a dead horse fell on him.  (The same event killed his mother.)  He finds his epilepsy beautiful, but has trouble feeling like it doesn't define him, especially since his father wrote a famous sci-fi novel that drew strongly on his story.  At the same time, he's mostly a normal teenage boy, hanging out with his best friend Cade Hernandez and making crude jokes.  Things don't completely change for Finn when he meets Julia Bishop, but falling in love does change some things.

Smith has an incredible knack for teen voices.  His books involve outlandish events and outsized personalities, but his books succeed because his characters seem like actual flawed, confused people.  At the same time, it feels like Smith is drawing a bit from the same well.  Perhaps it is because of reading 100 SIDEWAYS MILES and GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE less than six months apart, but there is a bit of a sameness to the style and the mix of the mundane and fantastical.

I know Smith can do stories that sound different (see THE MARBURY LENS), but his recent works have a strong authorial stamp.  They're still wonderful stories, both technically and artistically, and they stand out from the crowd.  But I feel like they stand out less if they blend into each other.

100 SIDEWAYS MILES is well worth reading.  It's a quick, satisfying story about falling in love, growing older, and finding direction.  It's better than most books I've read lately.  At the same time, it felt a little like Smith spinning his wheels.  I'm ready to see him push it full throttle again.

September 4, 2014

Review: Zac and Mia

Zac and Mia By A.J. Betts
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy

Stories about kids with cancer are more my older sister's speed, but ZAC AND MIA has been racking up the awards and many people I trust have been talking up this Australian import.  It won the 2012 Australian Text Prize, the 2014 Ethel Turner Prize, and the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award.  Not too shabby.

Zac has leukemia and is in quarantine post-bone marrow transplant when Mia moves into the room that shares a wall with his.  She has a leg tumor and a bad attitude.  Zac, who has a fifty-five chance of his cancer coming back, can't believe Mia doesn't know how lucky she is.  Mia can't believe she's missing out on her senior year of high school and losing her looks, which are the one thing she felt she had going for her.

ZAC AND MIA is told in alternating voices, but not in conventional manner.  The first third is told by Zac, the second third shared, and the last third is told by Mia.  I'm not entirely sure why the division is made the way it is.  In some ways Zac's story is more interesting at the end, just as Mia's story is more interesting at the beginning in some ways.  I did like the balance between them.  Zac is, in many ways, the more appealing character.  He's the fighter, obsessed with statistics of death but still upbeat.  Mia is the more dynamic character.  She can't see anything lucky in her situation at first, but she starts to learn the relativity of luck and the difficulties of loving relationships with people who are sick.  I really enjoyed the quiet way she and her mother repaired their relationship.

The setting of ZAC AND MIA helped me approach it as more than just another cancer book.  And no, I don't just mean Australia with its show bags.  (I'm still only partially sure what those are despite several Australians explaining them to me.)  Zac's quarantine in the beginning forces author A.J. Betts to be clever, conveying her protagonist's restlessness, frustration, and boredom while still finding a way to have him be at the center of interesting things despite his confinement.  The second third takes place on his family's olive farm.  It felt very lived in.  The big city parts are more conventional and less memorable.

I don't think cancer narratives will ever really be for me.  But I can see why ZAC AND MIA has been so well received.  Betts avoids the maudlin and puts the friendship ahead of the romance.  It's not entirely unconventional, but it is very well done.  I look forward to reading other books by Betts that don't heavily involve cancer.

September 3, 2014

Review: Dark Tide

Dark Tide By Greg Herren
Available now from Bold Strokes Books
Review copy

I was looking for summery books to read when DARK TIDE caught my eye.  It promised a lifeguard, a small Alabama town with secrets, and a mysterious disappearance.  Ricky Hackworth is off to earn some money in his last summer before college.  He could really use it, even with his scholarship to swim for the Crimson Tide.

He's suspiciously similar to the lifeguard before him, down to the scholarship.  But the lifeguard before him walked to town on a rainy day and was never seen again.  Many of the townspeople warn Ricky away, lest the same happen to him.  But he's drawn to certain people, and refuses to leave.

DARK TIDE deploys some excellent twists.  They're unexpected, recontextualize everything that's happened in the book to that point, and still make sense with the characters.  Ricky seems like a pretty straightforward guy (sweet, athletic, gay), but there's definitely a brain clicking away beneath the brawn.  As the cliche goes, not just a pretty face.  There's nothing that doesn't convince him more to find out what happened to his predecessor.

DARK TIDE is very short.  I felt like the denouement in particular could've been much longer - everything wraps up pretty neatly in a single chapter.  There's a great deal of atmosphere building, and then the mystery unravels with a snap of the fingers instead of being slowly teased out.  (Although given the truth, I'm actually somewhat relieved that Herren didn't linger on it longer.)  Anyway, it took me about half an hour to read DARK TIDE, which is fine for a by-the-pool read.  I don't want to say it needed to be much longer, because I liked that DARK TIDE was streamlined, but I just think the end needed a little more meat.

This small-town mystery was a nice change of pace for me.  I really liked Ricky, who was wonderfully developed throughout the novel.  I'm not a swimmer, but the detail that went into the swimming and what Ricky needed to do to stay in competitive shape added nice flavor to the text.  (However, Ricky seems to spend very little time actually doing his job.)  There is no romance, but there are some romantic elements that add to the tragedy of Latona's secrets.  I highly recommend DARK TIDE to anyone looking for a quick summer mystery.

September 2, 2014

Review: Julia's House for Lost Creatures

Julia's House for Lost Creatures By Ben Hatke
Available now from First Second (Macmillan)
Review copy

Ben Hatke is known for the Zita the Spacegirl graphic novels, the third and final volume of which came out earlier this year.  Now he is venturing into children's books with JULIA'S HOUSE FOR LOST CREATURES, and his skills transfer very well.  His art is adorable and immensely appealing.  The trolls and mermaids and dragons and patchwork kitties (lost creatures all) are absolutely adorable.

From Julia's House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke
There's a great deal of detail in the illustrations, perfect for kids who like to go over every page to point out every little thing.  (Yes, that would be my niece and nephew.)  I really think this helps add to the re-read value of JULIA'S HOUSE FOR LOST CREATURES.

The text itself is a short and sweet poem about Julia's house filling up with creature after creature and how she handles it.  It's a good length for a bedtime story, and I think JULIA'S HOUSE FOR LOST CREATURES is perfect for reading aloud to a child.  At the same time, it's simple enough to be a good text for really early readers.

If you're looking for a story with a walking house (that is too quiet), a lonely girl, and whimsical monsters, then JULIA'S HOUSE FOR LOST CREATURES is a real treat.

September 1, 2014

Review: Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows Book one of the Age of Legends series
By Kelley Armstrong
Available now from HarperCollins
Review copy

SEA OF SHADOWS throws the reader into the deep end of a world with complicated social rules and magic.  There's curses on scrolls, strict honor codes, a Kitsune clan, and it's all very Japanese except for the things that aren't Japanese at all -- like the characters' names.

This means, for me, that the horror elements of this horror-fantasy took awhile to gel.  Horror takes much of its force from perverting the normal.  When you're still getting a barometer of what normal is, then it's just sort of people disappearing left and right for some reason that maybe has something to do with a plague or a curse.  Meanwhile, the back of your head is pondering why the book is titled SEA OF SHADOWS when it appears to take place in a sinister forest.

But I though the novel picked up pace and I really started to get into it.

SEA OF SHADOWS is the story of twin sisters Moria and Ashyn, the Keeper and Seeker of Edgewood, respectively.  Moria is the warrior, but Ashyn is the one who must go into the woods to gather the dead and lay their spirits to rest.  But something goes horribly awry, and their town becomes infected with the strange, zombie-like sickness that has been lurking in the woods.  The spirits that usually guide Moria and Ashyn go silent.  They have only their skills, their respective guard pet, and the two convenient love interests.

I think that SEA OF SHADOWS is a very enjoyable read, but not one that hangs together when you think about it too much.  Kelley Armstrong threw so much at the wall when building this world, and I'm not sure how much she though about how the various pieces fit together.   The whole exiling people to the woods to become zombies thing never made much sense.  Hopefully, the future books in the series can smooth some of that out.  However, the first book of trilogy is usually handles the introductory material, and SEA OF SHADOWS had trouble with that.  And, well, the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger, which I always hate in a first book.

I think Armstrong fans will enjoy SEA OF SHADOWS, as will fans of fantastic and J-horror.  But this book felt like it could have used a few more rounds of editing to fill in the plot holes and help the world building cohere.  I also feel like a stronger sense of the world and how it works would help some of the pacing issues to.  I had fun reading SEA OF SHADOWS, and I'll probably be back for the second book, but it isn't Armstrong's best effort.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...