August 31, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Young Adult Debuts

EnchantedENCHANTED by Alethea Kontis
Available now from Harcourt (Houghton Mifflin)
Review copy courtesy of Ashleigh of The YA Kitten

In ENCHANTED, Alethea Kontis takes almost every fairytale you've every read, mashes them together, and comes up with something new.  Sunday is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (and a seventh son), and thus destined for something special despite being named as nothing more than "blithe and bonny and good and gay."  Her life takes a turn for the magical when she meets a frog in the woods, with whom she falls in love.  Turns out he's the prince who got her older brother killed.

ENCHANTED is an uneven read.  I don't know if this was fixed in the final copy, but a couple of scenes came out of nowhere.  But I love fairytales enough that I could ignore any problems pretty well.  Kontis leaves things open for the return of Jack, and I'd be willing to read another story set in this world.

Of Poseidon OF POSEIDON by Anna Banks
Available now from Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan)
Review copy courtesy of Sarah of The Book Life

Galen, the prince of the Syrena, acts as a sort of ambassador between the humans and his people.  Well, the humans don't know the Syrena exists, but Galen keeps tabs on them.  One of his contacts tells him about Emma, a girl who can speak to fish.  But when he tracks her down, she has no clue what she is.

I got really into OF POSEIDON.  I thought Anna Banks created a terrific world - I wanted to know even more about the Syrena and their politics.  I loved Galen's stubborn denial of his feelings for Emma.  I liked Emma being utterly confused and frustrated by his denial.  But I hated how abruptly OF POSEIDON ended.  I was convinced my copy was missing the last thirty pages.

Seraphina SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman
Available now from Random House
Review copy

SERAPHINA is a high fantasy novel about a young girl in the kingdom of Goredd.  The humans and dragons have been at peace for forty years and there's about to be a delegation celebrating that anniversary.  But a prince was just murdered, and it looks like a dragon did it.  Seraphina wants to solve the mystery, but she must hide that she is half human, half dragon.

I am so happy Rachel Hartman has already confirmed that there will be a sequel to SERAPHINA.  This is a terrific book filled with mystery, romance, and music.  The differences between humans and dragons are clear, and the balance between them is delicate.  Seraphina must be clever and brave to save both of her peoples.  It's clean enough for younger readers and layered enough to appeal to adults.  SERAPHINA is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Lies Beneath LIES BENEATH by Anne Greenwood Brown
Available now from Delacorte Press (Random House)
Review copy

Calder White and his sisters long to avenge themselves on Jason Hancock, the man responsible for their mother's death.  The Whites are merpeople, surviving on the positive emotions of humans.  LIES BENEATH takes the popular set up of a human girl falling mutually in love with the mysterious, dangerous new boy and twists it by making the narrator the boy.

I really enjoyed spending time in Calder's head.  He's done some nasty things and he might be nicer than his sisters, but he's still willing to hurt people to get what he wants.  Lily Hancock, the love interest, is definitely foolhardy.  But she's got good instincts and doesn't immediately fall for Calder's charming stalker act.  The plot is standard fare, but Calder's inhuman point of view is what separates it from the crowd.  LIES BENEATH is a creepy, romantic read perfect for YA paranormal fans.

The Vicious DeepTHE VICIOUS DEEP by Zoraida Córdova
Available now from  Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy courtesy of Wendy of The Midnight Garden

I think THE VICIOUS DEEP might be my favorite of this year's mermaid books that I've read.  Tristan Hart is a lifeguard who gets sucked into an epic wave when trying to save someone.  When he's found alive and well three days later, he can't remember anything except a silver mermaid and he's a little . . . different.

Zoraida Córdova may be a debut author, but she already knows how to write an absorbing story.  I cannot wait to read THE SAVAGE BLUE and find out what happens next to Tristan, his best friend Layla, and the rest.  And let me say that this book has some awesome female characters.  The girls know what they want and they're willing to work to get their desires.  They certainly aren't going to put up with Tristan at his dumbest moments.  But even though Tristan can be dumb at points, he's a good guy who wants to keep people safe.  That's a very good quality in a prospective king.  THE VICIOUS DEEP is a great choice for those who want a mermaid story with a lot of action.

Insignia INSIGNIA by S. J. Kincaid
Available now from Katherine Tegen Books
Review copy

It's no secret that I've been craving science fiction lately, and INSIGNIA hit the spot.  In the not to distant future, war is fought by children controlling ships in space with their brains.  If that doesn't sound awesome to you, INSIGNIA may not be your kind of book.  Tom Raines travels throughout the country with his gambler father, but he's getting tired of hustling unsuspecting gamers for a living.  When he's offered a position at the military academy to become one of the few, super important Combatants, he jumps at the chance.

I loved the character details in INSIGNIA.  Teamwork is useful when fighting a war, but while Tom makes friends he isn't good at working with others.  But he has a talent for attack that most of his classmates lack.  I loved Wyatt, one of the girl recruits, who is also one of the few who is proficient at programming.  (Programming is the one subject where the recruits can't be helped by machines.)  I am also in love with the unconventional romance storyline.  I cannot wait to see what happens to Tom's ill-advised courtship in the next novel.  INSIGNIA introduces an intriguing new voice in young adult science fiction.

August 30, 2012

Review: Dangerous Boy

Book Cover By Mandy Hubbard
Available now from Razorbill (Penguin)
Review copy

DANGEROUS BOY starts in media res, with a girl running from a boy who wants to kill her and who has already killed once.  Then it jumps back a month to show how that girl came to be running for her life through the rain.

The girl is Harper and the place is Enumclaw, Washington.  It's one of those towns that's half-rural, half-suburban.  Harper and her friends fall into the rural part of that equation.  But Harper is no tough, strapping farm girl.  She's pretty timid all around, on top of her ten big fears, which all relate to her mother's untimely death by extreme sports.  Her boyfriend Logan has been doing his best to draw her out of her shell.  Then she meets Logan's twin, Daemon.  Daemon has to be homeschooled because he did something so bad in their old hometown that they had to leave.

The first half of DANGEROUS BOY was hard for me to put down.  It wasn't just wanting to reach that heart-pounding opening scene.  There's an extremely creepy atmosphere permeating DANGEROUS BOY.  There's suddenly hundreds of dead birds.  There are bloody handprints on every car in the school parking lot.  People Harper cares about have strange accidents.  She receives invasive letters from a stalker.

But then I really slowed down.  It got to be too much.  As multiple people tell Harper, she really needed to go to the cops.  Yet she not only keeps things secret, she keeps trying for face-to-face confrontations with Daemon.  I could maybe believe her stubborn insistence on facing down the creeper herself if she hadn't been established as a total scaredy-cat.  When she tries to investigate the twins' past, she drives to Cedar Cove but spends her entire time reading the school's newspaper on microfiche instead of talking to people.  It may be just me, but I think everybody in a school knows what happened when someone gets expelled.

The ending could've redeemed the increasingly ludicrous second half, but instead things just got sillier.  I'd tell you the classic novel DANGEROUS BOY is based on, but it would spoil all the twists.  Suffice it to say, the original had a better explanation for how everything happened.  Sadly, contemporaries do not allow for mad science.

I can't completely write off DANGEROUS BOY.  The atmosphere is fantastic and it gets in several good scares.  I would've absolutely loved this during the years I devoured R. L. Stine's Fear Street books.  I just wish the second half of the book lived up to the first half.

August 29, 2012

I'm guest blogging at The Book Rat!

Misty of The Book Rat is currently winding down her annual Austen in August (usually Jane in June) event.  This year I participated for the first time!

I don't know if anyone reading this remembers when I went to England, since it's been several years and I don't expect the minutiae of my life to take up any of your valuable brain space.  Anyway, I went there to study Jane Austen and Shakespeare on location.  That means I took a bunch of pictures.  Like, at least 2,000, no joke.  For my guest blog, I pared it down to eleven images of objects and places important to Jane Austen's life and work.

Interested?  Go read Jane Austen in Images.  Be sure to look around as Misty's curated a lot of great content and there's a bunch of prizes any Janeite would be thrilled to win.

For those who clicked onto the link for my blog from The Book Rat, here's a few Jane Austen-related posts you may be interested in:

Review: The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls

Unbearable Book Club By Julie Schumacher
Available now from Delacorte Press (Random House)
Review copy

Adrienne Haus was supposed to spend the summer with her best friend, canoeing.  Then she busted her knee and got herself stuck at home for the summer.  Even worse, her mother decided to organize a mother-daughter book club with some of the other mother's whose girls are in town for the summer.  There's wild and rich Cee-Cee, studious and obedient Jill, and total enigma Wallis.  Not exactly who Adrienne would choose to hang with.  But then, it's not their choice either.

One of the strengths of THE UNBEARABLE BOOK CLUB FOR UNSINKABLE is how it uses literature.  The club reads THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, FRANKENSTEIN, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, THE AWAKENING, and THE HOUSE ON CISNEROS STREET.  It's a great selection of books that high school girls are likely to be familiar with or become interested in due to the story.  The actual book club scenes are always great, and it's interesting to see the different interpretations of the text.

But one of the weaknesses of THE UNBEARABLE BOOK CLUB FOR UNSINKABLE GIRLS is how much it meanders.  The opening promises that someone is going to die because of the book club, but the novel doesn't sustain that ominous tone.  It's mostly a character study, but a very strange one.  Adrienne doesn't really know who she is and she isn't very good at figuring out other people's character either.  (And she constantly dismisses Jill as boring when Jill is both clearly awesome and the fount of all gossip.)

Even though THE UNBEARABLE BOOK CLUB FOR UNSINKABLE GIRLS comes close to being a shaggy dog story I enjoyed reading it.  It's not that hard to empathize with a teen girl who just wants something to do (aside from going to a book club with her mom).  Of course she runs a bit wild.  Summer is super boring when you're stuck at home with no friends. I also liked that the book refused to solve all of its mysteries.

For those who love plot-driven novels, Julie Schumacher's latest is not your best bet.  For those who are looking for a fun novel to curl up with in these final days of summer, THE UNBEARABLE BOOK CLUB FOR UNSINKABLE GIRLS might be a good choice.  It certainly captures the season.

Think this sounds like a book you might read?  If you have read it, what do you think Wallis's secrets were?

August 28, 2012

Review: When You Were Mine

When You Were Mine By Rebecca Serle
Available now from Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy

WHEN YOU WERE MINE wasn't what I was expecting from the summary and reviews.  As you probably know, WHEN YOU WERE MINE is a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET through the point-of-view of the jilted Rosaline.  I had this imagine in my head of a crazy passionate romance between Rosaline and Rob, suddenly interrupted by her sociopathic cousin Juliet.  It would then go into thriller territory, with Rosaline trying to save Rob's life.  That's not quite how the book goes.

Rosaline and Rob have been best friends forever.  When they come back to school as seniors, Rob finally makes a move and asks Rosie out.  She's over the moon that they're finally going to go out together.  But their first date is surprisingly awkward, aside from a great kiss at the end.   Before they can make their relationship official, Juliet moves back to town and the two fall in love fast and hard.

Now, Juliet might have moved on Rob just because he was hot.  But something happened between their families years ago, and Rosie hasn't seen her cousin since one disastrous Christmas.  Juliet, however, seems to know what caused the split.  (Unlike in Shakespeare's play, Rosaline's family is aligned with Rob's rather than Juliet's.)  I loved that Juliet wasn't a straight-up crazy, evil character.  She's just a teenage girl with an unhappy home life, a need for revenge, and an unexpected passion.  Debut author Rebecca Serle gives Juliet moments of true emotion, not allowing Rosie to see her as just a villain.

Serle wisely keeps WHEN YOU WERE MINE from focusing too much on the updated versions of the famous lovers.  Their story has been told and she's doing something new.  Instead, the book introduces new characters: Rosie's best friends, Charlie and Olivia, and her biology partner Len.  Charlie and Olivia contribute to 2012's reputation as a great year for female friendships in YA.  Len, meanwhile, is a terrific diversion from the milquetoast Rob.  He's a pianist and much smarter and more dedicated than Rosie expected before she started spending time with him.  I thought the non-Shakespearean elements of WHEN YOU WERE MINE eclipsed the derivative material.

But really, what makes WHEN YOU WERE MINE a successful book is Rosaline's voice.  That's good, considering the book is supposed to be her version of ROMEO AND JULIET.  She's a normal high school girl.  She's loyal to her friends, worried about college, not as confident in her looks as she should be, a bit preoccupied with popularity, and prone to fits of pique.  I liked that she doesn't put up with the way Rob treats her.  He throws her over for Juliet, and she doesn't pretend that she's okay with that and they can still be friends.  He hurt her feelings and she's not going to let him get close again.  She has her moments of weakness, but she doesn't make a fool of herself trying to get him back.  Maybe it's just my opinion, but I can't stand stories about girls doing crazy things to reunite with their exes.  I'm so happy that isn't what WHEN YOU WERE MINE is about.

WHEN YOU WERE MINE made me cry in the way ROMEO AND JULIET never has.  It's a very human retelling of the famous drama, the old story enlivened by the trappings and distractions of high school life.  And, of course, it is anchored by a strong voice.  Serle has made a terrific debut on the YA scene.

August 27, 2012

Movie Monday: A Very Long Engagement

A Very Long Engagement Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of my favorite directors.  His movies include the international hit Amelie, the cannibalistic Delicatessen, and cult favorite MicmacsA Very Long Engagement may be his most conventional film, but it exhibits all of Jeunet's directorial quirks.

A Very Long Engagement is the love story of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), two young French lovers separated by World War I.  Manech never returned home from war.  He deliberately injured his hand and was court-martialed and sent into No Man's Land with a group of four other fellow self-mutilators from the same trench.  But Mathilde doesn't believe he died and sets out to find him.  At the same time, Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) seeks revenge on those who sent her lover to his death with Manech.

The story shifts back and forth in time as Mathilde tracks down anyone who might know anything and collects their stories.  Often Mathilde learns things that contradict what previous characters thought was true.  But piece by piece things come together and the viewer starts to believe that Mathilde might be right, that Manech somehow survived.  It's a tricky film, full of all sorts of tricky details, but ultimately rewarding.  And every scene where Manech and Mathilde are together is absolutely swoonworthy because Tautou and Ulliel are both ridiculously pretty people.  A Very Long Engagement is arty and complex, but above all else it is a romance.  And as much as I enjoy a good romantic comedy, it's sometimes relaxing to watch a romance that doesn't need shenanigans.  (That isn't to say A Very Long Engagement doesn't have a sense of humor.)

I should note that A Very Long Engagement is not for viewers who are sensitive to violence.  The scenes of trench warfare are as horrifying as anything in an action war film and Lombardi gets her vengeance in very inventive ways.  But all the violence makes the sweetness that much more rewarding.

Despite being a French film, you might recognize many of the faces in the large cast.  Tautou and Ulliel have both starred in English-speaking productions.  Cotillard has gone on to become a major movie star.  Jodie Foster has a cameo as a Polish woman.  And just . . . don't be afraid of subtitles.  Give foreign films a chance, especially when they're this beautiful.

A Very Long Engagement will appeal to fans of Atonement and Legends of the Fall.  (Okay, so Legends of the Fall is super schmaltzy, it's still a wartime romance and I happen to enjoy it.)   It's an artful and affecting film, and one I re-watch yearly.

August 26, 2012

Developments in Literacy

Developments in Literacy (DIL) was created by Pakistani-Americans to improve the quality of education in Pakistan.  More than 30,000 students have been reached by DIL's efforts, and 68% of those students are female.  The program has provided more than 65,000 books and 49 computer labs.  You can donate here.  (Sadly, I am giving less links and information than usual because my antivirus programs are warning me off the DIL website.)

Developments in Literacy has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator.

August 25, 2012

I love this article about the BSC

Claudia, Queen of the Seventh Grade So, over at The Atlantic, there's an artile titled "The Legacy of 'The Baby-Sitters Club'" and it is brilliant.  Jen Doll really did her homework on the long-running series.  The BSC was never my jam, but my older sister devoured everything Ann M. Martin.  And I'll admit to having a soft spot for CLAUDIA, QUEEN OF THE SEVENTH GRADE, the book where Claudia gets held back.

Crazy fact: David Levithan made and kept the BSC bible as an intern.  Between this and Diadem,  I'm starting to think he was involved in everything I read in elementary.  (That's right, I'm onto you Levithan.)

(via School Library Journal)

August 24, 2012

Review: Nothing Special

Nothing Special By Geoff Herbach
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

Geoff Herbach follows his excellent debut STUPID FAST with another tale about Felton Reinstein and his family.  Felton went to being unnoticed (except by bullies) to being a track and football hero.  His younger brother, Andrew, remains uncelebrated.  Then Andrew runs away to Florida and Felton follows.

NOTHING SPECIAL is told as a long, journal-like letter to Felton's girlfriend Aleah, who isn't talking to him.  He's recounting his current journey to Florida as well as the one he took earlier in the year.  Felton, charmingly, doesn't censor his weaknesses and low points.  He ain't perfect, but he's honest about being selfish and thoughtless sometimes.  What's really sweet is he seems to think he's the only person in his life who can be accused of narcissism.  Felton's voice, as in STUPID FAST, is direct, funny, and the perfect blend of self-aware and completely clueless.

Fans of the first book will be happy to spend more time in Felton's head, but NOTHING SPECIAL is welcoming to new readers.  There might be some questions about Felton's father or other minor bits of continuity, but there is no complex mythology to follow.  It's a book about siblings - and other relations - and most everyone can relate to that with or without the backstory.

I honestly don't have much more to say than that.  Herbach is a great new talent and I can't wait to read his next book whether it involves Felton or not.  (But I definitely won't say no to reading about Felton's adventures in college.)  NOTHING SPECIAL will appeal to contemporary lovers, particularly those looking for a book that isn't about romance.

August 23, 2012

Review: The Downside of Being Charlie

The Downside of Being Charlie By Jenny Torres Sanchez
Available now from Running Press (Perseus Books Group)
Review copy

Charlie Grisner used to be fat.  But slimming down didn't solve his problems.  His mother still runs away and his dad spends most of his time out of the house.  He's only got one real friend and he has to share a locker with Tanya Bate, the girl everyone hates.  He's really into Charlotte VanderKleaton, the new girl, but so is one of the school bullies. 

I loved Charlie's voice.  He's awkward in a very authentic way.  He doesn't have good problem-solving skills because his parents have taught him to run away from confrontation.  While he came back from fat camp motivated to keep exercising (okay, that was to spy on the hot new neighbor), the pressures in his life lead to binging and purging.  You don't often see books dealing with bulimia, much less guys who have it.

The secondary cast is pretty great too.  Ahmed, the aforementioned real friend, emulates the Rat Pack in dress and speech.  It can get a little annoying, but it's saved by Ahmed's loyalty to his buddy.  Charlotte could be just another idealized dream girl, but debut author Jenny Torres Sanchez takes the time to flesh her out.  Charlie sometimes notices the girl within the pretty exterior and sometimes misses the clues pointing her out.  It felt very natural.  I also liked the photography teacher, who notices that Charlie is having issues and takes the time to talk to him about his home life.

THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING CHARLIE could be a downer - mental illness, eating disorder, bullying - but Sanchez writes with humor and optimism.  There's an upside to being Charlie, too. Charlie just needs to figure that out for himself. This terrific contemporary will appeal to a wide-range of YA readers.  The male narrator will hopefully interest guy readers in some of the "girly" topics covered by THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING CHARLIE.  I think Sanchez's is one of the best debuts I've read this year.

August 22, 2012

Review: Capital Girls

Capital Girls Book One of the Capital Girls series
By Ella Monroe
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

Ella Monroe is the pseudonym of Marilyn Rauber and Amy Reingold, a reporter and a writer making their YA debut.  They've drawn on their own history living in Washington, D.C. to write a series in the vein of Gossip Girl and the A-list with a political twist.  You know this kind of novel - lots of narrators, lots of brand names, lots of juicy scandals, and lots of plot twists.  It's pure popcorn.

I went back and forth on whether I like the characters or not.  There's lots of backstabbing and frenemy action, which doesn't make them the easiest characters to like.  While there are several Capital Girls, the main narrator of CAPITAL GIRLS is Jackie Whitman.  Jackie just lost her best friend in a tragic car wreck and has been fighting with her boyfriend Andrew Pierce - the President's son.  Meanwhile, her mother is forcing her to cozy up to a gossip columnist's daughter and she's being seduced by an older lawyer.  I felt like Jackie had her heart in the right place, but she's very tempted by the easy way out.

Less present in the novel were Lettie Velasquez, a Paraguayan girl in the US on an embassy sponsorship, and Laura Beth Ballou, the only Republican in the core group.  I liked Lettie, who is trying her best to get ahead and go to a good school so that she can go back and help her country.  Laura Beth seemed a little too naive and easily misled for someone raised in a political atmosphere.  Not mentioned at all on the back is Whitney Remick, a California transplant who just wants to go back home.  She's the most obviously villainous of the group, but it's a touch hard to delight in her machinations when she just wants her mother's love.

Many plots are introduced in CAPITAL GIRLS, although only a couple are resolved within its pages.  The most compelling is the death of Taylor Cane, the one all the Capital Girls considered their best friend.  Andrew was in the car with her, but he's remained completely silent about that night.  Throughout the book Taylor remains a forceful presence in her surviving friends' lives, and each of them muse on the mysterious crash at times.

If you like Gossip Girl, the A-list, The Elite, Insider Girl, The Clique - any of that kind of series - you'll probably like CAPITAL GIRLS too.  If you don't, then you'll probably want to avoid this one. (Quick note for parental types: there is underage drinking, drugging, and sexing.  Obvs.)  There's discussion of immigration debate and a female president to class up the joint, but it's still a book that exists more to be juicy than good literature.  I'm not sure if it qualifies as juicy yet, but I'm willing to read SECRETS AND LIES, coming November 13th, to see what happens next.

August 21, 2012

Review: Princess Adademy: Palace of Stone

Palace of StoneBook Two in the Princess Academy series
By Shannon Hale
Available now from Bloomsbury
Review copy courtesy of Nicole of Paperback Princess

Fans of young adult literature are often called upon to defend it, to explain that YA books are not dumbed down or simplified.   Rarely do you hear the same protests from middle grade fans.  But the best middle grade books - THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, A WRINKLE IN TIME, MATILDA - can be read and loved by adults as well as children.  Good middle grade fiction doesn't condescend to the reader any more than YA does.  And no one could accuse Shannon Hale of condescension in PALACE OF STONE, the second Princess Academy book.

(Be warned: this review spoils PRINCESS ACADEMY.)

Revolution.  Miri brought change to Mount Eskel, empowering the poor people of the mountain to ask for a fair price for their labor.  The lowlanders noticed, and discontent with the nobility is spreading.  And Miri's best friend Britta is about to marry the prince, making her a target for the revolutionaries' rage.

It's been ages since I read PRINCESS ACADEMY.  But Hale brought me right back into the world of Danland, and soon I remembered clever, radical Miri and loyal, hardworking Peder and all the rest.  Now a lady of the princess, Miri has traveled to capital city Asland to support Britta and study at Queen's College.  There she meets Timon, a young boy who introduces her to a group of radicals.  She sympathizes with their ideals - until it becomes clear getting rid of nobles means death to nobles.

Much of PALACE OF STONE getting to know and like the members of the Salon, but on the other side, Britta is known and liked.  There is no clear cut solution to save the country.  There is no dragon to be slayed.  And the characters are in mortal danger.  Miri could be beheaded for treason.  Britta could be beheaded for being the princess-to-be.

I also liked how much of PALACE OF STONE flows logically from PRINCESS ACADEMY.  There's the inspiration from Miri's actions mentioned at the beginning of the review.  Then there's the fact Britta pretended to be an orphan to reunite with her childhood friend and love.  Without her, Miri - a commoner - would be the prospective princess.  Miri might've forgiven Britta, but that doesn't mean everyone has.  And Danland needs to learn to forgive if it's going to heal the grievances between the peasants and the aristocracy.

PALACE OF STONE is a terrific character-driven political thriller, for kids or not.  Fans of history will appreciate the ersatz French Revolution that hangs heavy over the characters' heads.  Once again, Hale delivers a terrific story.  PALACE OF STONE is worth the wait.

August 20, 2012

Movie Monday: Favorite Critics

I've been reading movie reviews every Friday since junior high.  I'd read them on vacation, trawling through my late grandmother's Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the entertainment section.  I remember reading the local review of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl then going to see it with her.  Now, every weekend, I pick up the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Weekender section from my maternal grandmother.

The Weekender is helpful in the strangest way because I almost never agree with Christopher Kelly.  Movies he loves, I hate.  Movies he hates, I love.  It's the rare occasion when we agree.  Look, the man thinks the Shrek series is brilliant.  Shrek.  Honestly.

I read the A.V. Club, but find their movie reviews so-so.  They're helpful, but none of the critics really spark with me.  A.V. Club coverage is particularly helpful for finding out about weirder, smaller films.  They cover things local papers don't.  And while their commetariat can be a bit much, they've got a wide range of pop culture knowledge and are very willing to announce and defend their opinions.  The comments are also a great source for movies to watch.

It may be cliche, but I love Roger Ebert's reviews.  He's got a genuine love of film and the ability to write memorable phrases multiple times a week.  I don't agree with him all the time, but we're both very positive about movies.  People claim that his ratings are too high, but I'm all for enjoying things for what they are and only marking down for a true fiasco.  (Although he's tougher on violent films than I am.)  But it basically comes down to the writing.  I could read Ebert all day.  When he loves a film, he's poetic.  When he hates it . . . no one writes a burn like Roger Ebert.

I think my addiction to movie reviews helped me start this blog.  The way I structure my reviews is based on what I learned from reading these guys.

August 19, 2012

Children's Literacy Initiative

The Children's Literacy Initiative (CLI) provides professional development - through seminars, literature, etc. - for teachers of grades prekindergarten to third.  There's a variety of evidence by external organizations that the CLI has a positive impact on communities in which it is active.  (But do we really need someone to tell us more little kids being able to read is a good thing?)  You can donate here.

The Children's Literacy Initiative has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator.

August 17, 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen By G. Willow Wilson
Available now from Grove Press (Grove/Atlantic)
Review copy

G. Willow Wilson wanted to talk to the literati, comic book geeks, and Muslims at once.  She wanted to write a book that was a dialogue between them.  In the process, she borrowed a bit from almost every genre and wrote a funny, affecting novel about the internet, revolution, and the many ways we can see the world.

Alif is a hacker specializing in providing security for other hackers, bloggers, anyone who wants to cover their tracks from the State.  He has a girlfriend, who he met over the internet, who leaves him for a rich fiance.  Her last request is to never see him again.  He complies, writing a program that can track any person by their typing patterns and blocking her from accessing his presence on the net.  Then her fiance, the Hand of God and the State's premier computer surveillance guy, hacks Alif's machine and gets the program.  But what he really wants in the copy of the Alf Yeom (The Book of a Thousand Days) given to Alif by Intisar.

By the time the book is though, Alif's allies will include jinn, an American convert, a holy man, a prince, and a pious neighbor.  He will  be repaid for saving someone's life unknowingly, survive a car wreck in the desert, and grow up a little.  Although no age is given for Alif, it's heavily implied that he's a teenager.  He certainly has a teenager's captious passions and lack of long-term planning.

I loved ALIF THE UNSEEN.  I loved how it revels in the powers of literature, belief, and the internet.  I like how handles are used, as legitimate identities, although there are some characters like Dina who need nothing but their real name and that's okay too.  I liked that there is a world of magic right beside out own, but few can see it because they're too busy being superstitious to actually believe in something.  I liked the strong sense of time and place.  I liked that Wilson clearly had something to say but didn't sacrifice story for didacticism. 

I know lots of literary types who having been raving over ALIF THE UNSEEN, exactly as Wilson wanted.  I think there's room for a large young adult and new adult audience as well.  ALIF THE UNSEEN, among the many other things it accomplishes, captures what it is like to be young.  It's a tale of being in over your head, of deciding when to be reverent, of being both crushed and new in love, and being awesome at computers but not knowing as much as older people about a bunch of important things.  All in all ALIF THE UNSEEN is a terrific, thrilling novel.  And you can be assured I'm going to look into reading Wilson's graphic novels.

August 16, 2012

Blog Tour: 52 Days of 52 Reasons to Love Jessica Brody and Her Books (+ Contest)

52 Reasons
1 of the 52 Reasons to Love Jessica Brody and Her Books . . . for 51 other reasons, visit Green Bean Teen Queen (August 15th), Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile (August 17th) and The Hiding Spot (August 18th), and stay tuned for more! 
Today's Reason: Jessica's sister is a professional stylist.
Want to know more about 52 REASONS TO HATE MY FATHER?  Well, you could read my review.  Or you could check out this excerpt.  Or you could read the blurb.
Being America’s favorite heiress is a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.
Lexington Larrabee has never to work a day in her life. After all, she’s the heiress to the multi-billion-dollar Larrabee Media empire. And heiresses are not supposed to work. But then again, they’re not supposed to crash brand new Mercedes convertibles into convenience stores on Sunset Blvd either.
Which is why, on Lexi’s eighteenth birthday, her ever-absent, tycoon father decides to take a more proactive approach to her wayward life. Every week for the next year, she will have to take on a different low-wage job if she ever wants to receive her beloved trust fund. But if there’s anything worse than working as a maid, a dishwasher, and a fast-food restaurant employee, it’s dealing with Luke, the arrogant, albeit moderately attractive, college intern her father has assigned to keep tabs on her.
In a hilarious “comedy of heiress” about family, forgiveness, good intentions, and best of all, second chances, Lexi learns that love can be unconditional, money can be immaterial, and, regardless of age, everyone needs a little saving. And although she might have 52 reasons to hate her father, she only needs one reason to love him.
Want to read 52 REASONS TO HATE MY FATHER?  You're in luck then, because I have three copies to give away to three people with US addresses.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

August 15, 2012

2012 Cybils Call for Judges

From now through August 31 you can apply to be a judge for the Cybils.  I just applied (for the first time!) and I've got my fingers crossed.  I've read lots of people's blog posts about their time judging for the awards, and it seem like a fun and involved process.  If you're an active blogger, you can apply too.

Review: The Templeton Twins Have an Idea

The Templeton Twins Book One of The Templeton Twins
By Ellis Weiner
Illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
Available now from Chronicle Books
Review copy

I sometimes chat with people while reading books.  It's a rare sometimes, because most of the time I prefer to focus on my book rather than talk to people.  I tend to talk when I need to think something through.

In the case of THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA, I was having issues with the narrator.  Now, the narrator is very funny.  Hir voice is idiosyncratic, with a strong opinion on the story, and often digressing to things like meatloaf recipes rather than the main plot.  Yes, it is very much like Lemony Snicket.  A Series of Unfortunate Events ended a little more than five years ago.  There's room for a new story in the same vein.  But there were times I found the style uncomfortably similar.

Abigail and John Templeton are fraternal twins living with their inventor father.  After their mother's death, their father decides to go to work at a different university.  There a man accuses their father of stealing his idea and demands credit.  Dean D. Dean and his identical twin Dan D. Dean are willing to kidnap the Templeton twins in order to get what they want.  But fortunately Abigail and John are experts at cryptic puzzles and the drums, respectively.

THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA is very funny and smart in a way that's accessible to younger readers.  I particularly liked the quiz questions at the end of each chapter.  They're silly - either easy, not a real question, or a facetious request for an essay - but I felt like they did increase my engagement with the text.

I liked Jeremy Holmes's artwork.  I read an ARC so most of the illustrations were only sketches, but I liked the way they looked.  Each image is stylish and dynamic.  And the design of THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA extends from the illustrations to include playful borders and some special speech bubbles.  It's both attractive and tempts rereading in order to find more details.

Young puzzle lovers and Lemony Snicket fans will enjoy THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA.  I think there's always an audience for hilarious books about smart kids getting in and out of trouble.  At least, I hope there is.  And that audience will find THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA.

August 14, 2012

Review: Auracle

Book Cover By Gina Rosati
Available now from Roaring Brook (Macmillan)
Review copy courtesy of the golden witch.

Gina Rosati's debut novel takes on a paranormal ability I haven't seen covered in YA books yet: astral projection.  The ability will be familiar to anyone like me who is old enough to have watched Charmed.   (Are there people reading this too young to have seen Charmed?  Please say no, because I'm feeling old right now.)

Anna Rogan can leave her body and travel all around the world in the space of a history class.  Her best friend Rei is the only one who knows about her ability.  (Rei is short for Robert Reiki Ellis.  Thus, Rei is a guy despite the girly nickname.)  Not even their mutual friend Sean Murphy knows about Anna's power.  Then Taylor Gleason and Sean have a rendezvous a the top of the waterfall and she falls, Sean unable to save her.  Anna sees it all, observing in her astral form.  But when she tries to return to her body, Taylor has taken over.  And Taylor has one goal: put Sean in jail for her untimely death.  Anna must find a way to get her body back and clear Sean's name.  Unfortunately, Rei is the only person who can see her.

AURACLE gets bonus points for being standalone, not having a love triangle, and not being about vampires or werewolves.  It loses points for having characters who constantly do stupid things.  Sean, in particular, acts in the most incriminating way possible.  Rei has the most sense, and they are just teenagers, but it's sometimes frustrating.

But while AURACLE contains unconventional aspects, Anna is, at heart, a conventional heroine.  She knows about her astral projection in the beginning, but she's never learned how to use it more effectively.  She's secretly in love with her best friend.  Taylor, on the other hand, is more intriguing.  She'd prefer to be a mother than go to Yale like her parents want.  She's acting out, desperate to be liked, selfish, and sad.  She's a female sexual predator, pursuing guys after they say no, but dismissed by Anna and most of her classmates as a slut.  She died a teenager and wants desperately to live.

It takes almost the entirety of AURACLE for Anna to have any empathy for Taylor.  Now, Taylor is definitely the villain, but she's a complex character.  It's a bit disturbing that the heroine so easily writes her off.  Perhaps I'm just turned off by how often Anna tosses the word slut around.  The way Taylor treats Sean is wrong, and I'm cool with someone being called out for pursuing the unwilling.  But slut isn't the right term for that.

I enjoyed AURACLE as a paranormal thriller.  But I wish Rosati played more with moral ambiguity and risked Rei and Anna seeing Taylor's more likeable qualities earlier in the story.  AURACLE's ending just feels like a return to status quo, not redemption.

August 13, 2012

Movie Monday: Hope Springs

On Saturday my mom asked me if I wanted to go see Hope Springs or The Campaign.  I want to see both, but I wasn't really in the mood for stupid humor.  (Turns out she was really surprised I wanted to see Hope Springs.  C'mon, it stars Meryl Streep!)  I think I was the youngest person in the theater - and my mom was the second youngest.

I thought the movie was often hilarious, sometimes sad, and always sincere.  Kay (Meryl Streep) is no longer content with the patterns her marriage to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) has fallen into.  Thus she convinces him to go to intensive marriage counseling in Hope Springs, Maine with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).  And yes, part of that counseling is reinvigorating their sex life.

I'm impressed by how well Hope Springs portrays intimacy.  Kay and Arnold still want each other, but they no longer know how to communicate their needs.  And it's all very tastefully done.  Kay and Arnold are obviously uncomfortable discussing their problems with a stranger.  Okay, the sex scenes are ridiculously clothed, but they're well shot and illuminate the progression of the relationship.

Did I mention that Hope Springs is hysterical?  Streep and Jones have great chemistry and the perfect expressions to sell every joke.  Carell is extremely restrained as their therapist and proves to be the perfect straight man.  His absence of energy is practically a joke in itself.  Not every comedian could rein themselves in for such an understated performance.  (Although I don't think I need to tell you that Streep is the standout, from her girlish voice to the trembles of her face as her husband unintentionally hurts her feelings.)

Steve Carell as Dr. Feld
Hope Springs does have two scenes in bookstores, for all the book lovers out there.  One is a Barnes & Noble, but the standout is the fictional independent Kay goes to in Maine.  Young adult paranormal TORMENT by Lauren Kate is shelved face out next to some nonfiction books and other such nonsensical shelving.  I enjoyed trying to find books I recognized and trying to figure out some rhyme or reason to the mise en scene.

My only complaint would be the soundtrack.  There was nothing awful about the songs themselves, but I never thought they quite worked with the action onscreen.  Maybe my theater had the balance off, but each song just seemed too loud and took me away from the scene instead of pulling me deeper into it.  I liked the music in director David Frankel's previous effort The Devil Wears Prada, so I'm not sure what was up with this one.

I definitely recommend Hope Springs.  It's rare to find a comedy the mature and honest.  It was slightly awkward to see with my mother, but not that bad since all the sexual content wasn't tawdry but about expressing your needs and being able to find comfort with another person.  It's a good message.

August 12, 2012

Pratham USA

Pratham, active in 21 of 28 states, is the largest educational movement in India.  The organizations efforts have served over three million children.  Pratham started in the mid-90's by encouraging childhood literacy in India.  Programs to implement education reform continue today.

You can get involved in a large number of ways: donating, volunteering, working, hosting a fundraiser, visiting a Pratham site, and more.  

Pratham USA has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator.

August 11, 2012

More Great Deals

Consider this an addendum to yesterday's post.  Turns out, today starts a Kindle Big Deal sale.  I've gone through the more than 500 books on sale and picked out a few interesting titles.  (Please not I'm not spotlighting every YA title on sale, just ones I know something about.)  Spotted any good deals that I've missed?

Also, Kobo currently has all of the Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl books 75% off is you use coupon code percyartemis75 when checking out.  That makes new release THE LAST GUARDIAN only $2.99!

All $1.99:
Make Me How to Ditch Your Fairy No and Me The Iron Witch
MAKE ME is the newest title in Parker Blue's Demon Underground series. HOW TO DITCH YOUR FAIRY isn't my favorite Justine Larbalestier, but it's a cute light paranormal. NO AND ME, by Delphine de Vigan, is a translated French novel involving teen homelessness. Karon Mahoney's THE IRON WITCH was much anticipated last year.

Eye of the Storm Assassin's Apprentice Witch Eyes In Darkness
EYE OF THE STORM is by Kate Messner.  I recently reviewed her recent release CAPTURE THE FLAG. ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE: Oathbreaker was co-written by Susan Vaught and J B Redmond. Right now I am loving Vaught's FREAKS LIKE US, and who can resist that title? WITCH EYES by Scott Tracey has been on my want list for awhile because it's a gay paranormal. I believe there's a sequel coming soon. Nick Lake's recent release IN DARKNESS, about a Haitian teen, has gotten some great reviews.


August 10, 2012

Great Ebook Sales

From Open Road Media:
 Sorcery and Cecilia Summer of My German Soldier Boy's Life
SORCERY & CECELIA is a wry historical fantasy by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, two excellent authors.  SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER is a WWII novel and one of my sister's old favorites.  BOY'S LIFE is a bildungsroman in the vein of Stephen King's IT.

From Annick Press:
The Paper Bag Princess
A children's classic, perfect for girls of about three or four years old.

Sequels coming next month:
Bloody Jack Enclave Hold Me Closer Necromancer All These Things I've Done Storm
BLOODY JACK is a bloody classic.  The tenth book VIVA JACQUELINA! comes out September 4th and I will have a review posted that day. ENCLAVE was a so-so read for me.  I liked the action, but found parts of it very problematic.  I won't be reading OUTPOST. 
I am currently reading HOLD ME CLOSER, NECROMANCER and have an ARC of NECROMANCING THE STONE that I plan to review. I'm also reading ALL THESE THINGS I'VE DONE so that I can review BECAUSE IT IS MY BLOOD.
STORM is in this category on a technicality; SPARK comes out August 28th.  I bought STORM to read, but don't have a review copy of SPARK so don't expect my thoughts any time soon.

Previously reviewed:
In addition to reviewing WATERSMEET, I interviewed Ellen Jensen Abbott. Sequel THE CENTAUR'S DAUGHTER now available.

Other notables:
 The Book of a Thousand Days Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow Traitor in the Tunnel Swim the Fly Scarlet

Review: The Boy Recession

Book Cover By Flynn Meaney
Available now from Poppy (Hachette)
Review copy

I've had this review in draft for several days now because I just can't decide what to say.  This is the worst sort of review to write: the meh review.  I had fun reading THE BOY RECESSION, but I just don't have anything to say.

Hunter Fahrenbach and Kelly Robbins are both seniors and band members at Julius P. Heil High.  But when they come back to school from the summer, they find out that there have been a number of changes due to budget cuts.  There is no band.  And, more importantly in the minds of their classmates, most athletic funding has been cut.  All of the true athlete hopefuls decide to go to private schools, leaving Heil High bereft of its most popular boys.

I did enjoy Hunter's character arc.  He's happily slacked off for years, but he's realized that he needs to do something if he wants to go anywhere after graduation.  His big idea: start a music tutoring program for elementary school students.  And responsible Kelly is the perfect person to help him.  I've read a lot of stories about people trying to clean up their act, and they usually start with crazy schemes.  Hunter's idea is a little bit crazy, but it benefits others in a very real way.  He doesn't need to make a complete lifestyle change, just learn how to be more motivated.

As they spend more time together, Kelly realizes Hunter is a pretty good songwriter and possibly good boyfriend material.  But as soon as he performs in the school talent show at Kelly's behest, all of the girls can see for themselves that he's talented.  Pretty soon he's got a girlfriend and a role in the school musical with little time left for Kelly or the tutoring program.

I'm sure you can guess how everything turns out.  THE BOY RECESSION is not a novel full of surprises.  It's cute, but there's nothing to distinguish it from the million shy-girls-in-love-with-in-demand-boys books out there.  Flynn Meaney's first book, BLOODTHIRSTY, sounds fun and I might pick it up and read it sometime.  There's nothing wrong with her writing.  I just have no passion for THE BOY RECESSION.

August 9, 2012

Vote for First Book!
Graphic via First Book Tumblr
I've written about First Book before, but wanted to give an update on an easy way to help.  Go vote!

Review: Rift

Book Cover First prequel to the Nightshade series
By Andrea Cremer
Available now from Philomel (Penguin)
Review copy

Andrea Cremer is in a tricky position with RIFT.  Those who read the original trilogy know exactly where things are going.  But new readers, like protagonist Ember, are new to this world.  Cremer must try to satisfy both sets of readers.

Ember is a noblewoman pledged to Conatus since one of their healers saved her and her mother during a difficult birth.  She's perfectly happy to join the monastic order, but her father would prefer to marry her off in order to forge an alliance.  But Conatus is not any old order.  The members secretly fight against witches whose dark magic imperils the entire world.  And one of the highest ranked members, Eira, is being tempted by that magic.

I enjoyed that there wasn't a love triangle in RIFT.  There are two guys in Ember's life, but one she's actively pursuing and the other doesn't understand the word no.  I don't consider that a love triangle, although some might.  It's a scarily realistic part of the book, relevant to issues today despite being set in medieval times.  Alistair is the ultimate Nice Guy.*  While there is nothing wrong with being nice, Nice Guys think that being a girl's friend entitles them to have sex with her.  Since Ember tries to remain his friend after shooting him down, Alistair still thinks he has a chance and doesn't back off.  It's classic creeper behavior and I wish it weren't so recognizable.

But I do wish we got a little less of Ember learning to use her weapons and hanging out with Barrow and Alistair.  Nightshade trilogy readers might already know about Eira and her twin Cian, but they're still the most interesting figures in the story.  They're the people who go down in history.  But despite having a few chapters through their points of view, they remain ciphers.  Eira is motivated by power.  Cian not so much, since she doesn't go along with her sister.  I also wonder whether Ember's sister will show up in RISE.  The beginning half of the book teases her secrets, but she disappears completely after leaving Ember with Conatus.

 Cremer's fans will enjoy RIFT.  Like NIGHTSHADE and its two sequels, it has a dynamic heroine, an intriguing and consistent world, and good action scenes.  The medieval setting is well researched and provides a nice change.  Most of the main characters are progressive thinkers, but the thoughts of the world outside of Conatus seem in line with the times.  Ember is religious, as usual for a woman of her time, even if she does want to learn to be a warrior.

Cremer is in a tricky position, but RIFT is a pageturner that should satisfy both old and new fans.

*This Something Positive comic explains it in less words and with more pictures.

August 8, 2012

Review: Wake

Wake Book One of the Watersong series
By Amanda Hocking
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

Gemma loves to swim.  She's at swim practice everyday, swimming in the bay at night, and a potential Olympian.   Her older sister, Harper, worries about her midnight swims.  She's been watching out for Gemma since their mother had a traumatic brain injury.  In a few months she'll be at college and no longer able to keep an eye out.  And there is reason to worry since several local boys have gone missing.

Penn, Thea, and Lexi are three incredibly beautiful girls who have come to the tourist town for the summer.  But there's something creepy about them.  Gemma always stays away when they're partying on the beach during one of her swims.  Until one day something happens and she gives in, waking up the next day hungover and bruised.  Something happened to her that night, and now she's changing.

WAKE is the first book by Amanda Hocking to be traditionally published since her phenomenal success with self-publishing.  It's also the first book I've read by Hocking, despite downloading a few of her earlier books.  I enjoyed it and can see why she's become so popular.  WAKE is a fast read that incorporates many young adult urban fantasy tropes while cleverly twisting a few.

I particularly liked that all of the main characters - Gemma, Harper, and their love interests - weren't drawn to Penn's group despite thinking they were dangerous.  They do their best to stay away because they know something isn't right with those girls and they have a sense of self-preservation.  I also liked that Gemma never denies something supernatural is happening to her.  She might not know what it is, but she tries to figure out more about her transformation immediately instead of denying the obvious.

I wished the love interests, Alex and Daniel, got a little more pagetime.  They seem like decent guys and they had chemistry with Gemma and Harper, respectively, but I wanted WAKE to delve deeper into who they were behind the flirtatious banter.  (Daniel does do this, a little.)  Both male love interests being human was also refreshing.

I think WAKE was a good start to the Watersong series, even if it ended a bit abruptly.  Book Two, LULLABY, should be out November 27, so it's not like there's going to be a long wait.  I am looking forward to reading it because I want to know how everything turns out!

In addition to urban fantasy fans, I think WAKE might appeal to all the girls watching the Olympics this summer.  Considering fifteen-year-old Katie Ledecky went to the Olympics in the 800-meter freestyle after breaking the previous trial record and then took home the gold, it's an exciting time for young women who love swimming.


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