July 30, 2015

Review: Half a War

Half the World Third book of the Shattered Sea trilogy
By Joe Abercrombie
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my reviews of Half a King and Half the World

I was excited to finish the Shattered Sea trilogy since I enjoyed both of the first two books.  There's something so satisfying about finishing a series.

Each of the books shifts focus to a different narrator.  The main narrator of HALF A WAR is Skara, a princess who sees her family slaughtered.  She's traumatized and in exile, but she's also a queen now.  She must figure out how to be more than a figurehead and rescue her country from war.  Half a war is political shenanigans, and I love political shenanigans.  (What I didn't love is how many times characters express that sentiment.  Half a war, it's the title, we get it.)

The protagonists of the previous two books do appear.  Yarvi is used very well.  He's changed from who he was at the beginning of HALF A KING, and do many of the characters' points of view he's one of the villains.  Even though we only got a third of his journey through his eyes, it's been an intriguing one to watch.  I didn't think Thorn and Brand, from HALF THE WORLD, were used as well.  In fact, I rather disliked how they were treated in this book.

The Shattered Sea trilogy is composed of three very different coming-of-age stories.  Skara's story is probably my favorite of the three.  I admired the balance between her inexperience and her ability to learn quickly, listen wisely, and act decisively.  The co-protagonist, Raith, didn't impress me as much.  He's a brutal fighter annoyed at being traded to Skara like a thing, but he does think she's hot.  His character development felt inorganic, especially when Skara's was right there being done smoothly and neatly.

I thought HALF A WAR was a strong ending to the series.  The main storylines come to satisfying conclusions, but not completely neat ones that are false to what comes before.  The previous stories are built on, although too many elements from HALF THE WORLD fall to the wayside.  And Skara is the strongest protagonist of the series, which definitely gives the story a boost.  I think HALF A WAR will definitely satisfy fans of the Shattered Sea trilogy.

July 29, 2015

Review: If I Could Turn Back Time

If I Could Turn Back Time By Beth Harbison
Available now from St. Martin's Press
Review copy

It's hard to remember now why I picked up IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME.  I think it was the promise of time travel, which I tend to enjoy.  But the blurb hints at one of my major problems with the book.  IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME falls into that old pattern of successful, self-made woman figures out what she really needs is to be emotionally honest and find her soulmate.

In the end, I think IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME did some interesting things, but they tended to be too little, too late.  The execution of the beginning didn't grab me.  When Ramie wakes up after her disastrous 38th birthday party as a seventeen year old, she falls into a tendency to repeat information over and over as if the reader might've forgotten a detail from the previous two pages.  The timeline also doesn't quite work.  Ramie is clear that the first time she lost her virginity was six months after her eighteenth birthday, but that she and the guy broke up at their graduation party a few days after her eighteenth birthday.

The biggest problem is that all of the interesting stuff is rushed and crammed into the ends of the novel.  IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME starts to complicate things and introduce the idea that Ramie is driven and motivated and wouldn't be happy as just a housewife having children.  Her career doesn't get completely jettisoned, which I definitely appreciated, but the actual romance ended up being just a sketch of an idea after her romantic life was built up so much.

IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME has some interesting ideas, but I just couldn't get invested.  Does any almost forty-year-old woman really think that her high school boyfriend might've been the one?  I don't think Ramie was fulfilled at the beginning of the novel, but I was never convinced that focusing on her high school romance was a good focus for reflecting on her regrets.

July 28, 2015

Review: Thirteen Chairs

Thirteen Chairs By Dave Shelton
Available now from David Fickling Books (Scholastic)
Review copy

THIRTEEN CHAIRS starts with Jack, a young boy who has entered an (apparently) abandoned house to find a room filled with thirteen chairs, thirteen candles, and twelve people.  So he sits down, and then they each start to tell stories.

Each of them tells a ghost story.  Some, like "Let Me Sleep," are more traditional stories.  Others are set in the here and now, with taxis and cell phones.  I rather liked that touch, as it is harder to find ghost stories set in the present.  The tension builds nicely throughout the book.  I found the ending stories much scarier.  There are also interludes between each story, where the people talk to each other and Jack grows increasingly uncomfortable, ever more worried about more than the fact he'll soon have to tell a story himself.

I wouldn't say that THIRTEEN CHAIRS has twists, but the truth of what is going on in that old house does unfold at a nice pace.  There's a good balance of the frame story having a point and direction while still giving the individual stories their spotlights.

Each story opens with a woodcut-style illustration (done by the author, I believe).  I enjoyed all of the miniature ghost/horror stories, although some did particularly stand out.  The macabre "The Red Tree" was a true delight, as was "Unputdownable," which has an ending that bodes ill for anyone that comes into contact with a certain piece of literature.

If you like dark tales, and stories that build so that you start to feel a nice frisson of terror, then pick up THIRTEEN CHAIRS.  It's an excellent quick read with a decent amount of re-read value.

July 27, 2015

Movie Monday: Ant-Man

I'll admit it: I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It's had its ups and downs for me, but no true disappointment yet.  I was nervous going into Ant-Man.  I knew about the very public mess of Edgar Wright leaving the film.  At the very least I would get to enjoy Paul Rudd for two hours, right?

Paul Rudd is a big plus.  His charming on-screen presence is as evident as ever.  He's effortlessly funny and sweet.  He's not the only treat in the cast.  Evangeline Lilly is terrific as Hope, Hank Pym's estranged daughter.  She wants to be Ant-Man and has trained for it most of her life, but her father is firmly against it.  I love that even if her father wouldn't make her a suit she wouldn't stand idly by.  She'd risk her life as a civilian to make the world a better place.

One of the biggest delights of the film were the tip montages.  Paul Rudd's Scott Lang is a former criminal who just got out of prison.  His friend and former cellmate Luis is also recently released, and passes along rumors in a very roundabout way.  Luis's monologues, as delivered by Michael Peña, are a delight - especially with the way they're acted out.

The heist film structure of Ant-Man helps it stand out from the rest of the MCU.  It fits in, but it also manages to do its own thing.  Yes, it still ends in a climatic fight, but a much smaller one.  And a pretty imaginative one - Thomas the Tank Engine isn't the only delight in that final match-up (although it is a large one).

If you're looking for laughter, action, and redemption, then Ant-Man is a pretty darn fun summer movie.  It definitely exceeded my small expectations.

July 24, 2015

Review: Velvet

Velvet By Temple West
Available now from Swoon Reads (Macmillan)
Review copy

Swoon Reads has been around for more than a year now, but VELVET is still the first Swoon Reads book I've read.  On the website, you read, rate, and review YA manuscripts uploaded by users.  The best rated and most popular manuscripts get published by Macmillan's Swoon Reads imprint.  It is an innovative approach to publishing, so I'm surprised it took me this long to read one of the books.

VELVET starts when Caitlin Holte gets caught in a freak storm and rescued by an inhuman boy.  Readers soon realize she can't remember the incident, although she does know who saved her: her neighbor, Adrian.  Like her, he's an orphan who moved to the small town of Stony Creek, New York to live with his aunt and uncle.  He's also super hot, of course.  It's a pretty standard YA setup, but I like that Temple West took it in a few unique directions.

First, I loved that Adrian came clean to Caitlin about his vampirism pretty quickly.  He also let's her know that she's in danger from his father, who caused that storm at the beginning of the book.  His father is in a snit and Caitlin just happened to end up in the middle of things.  Adrian still keeps secrets because the vampire government makes him, but he's actually fairly open about what's happening because knowing the danger she's in helps Caitlin stay safe.  It's both logical and refreshing.

Second, I loved how lived-in Stony Creek feels.  Several of the girls Caitlin hangs with have their own romances going on, and school is a fairly important part of Caitlin's life.  As she starts to reconnect to her own life after her mother's death, she realizes that she has a lot to catch up on from those months she was tuning her schoolwork out.

Third, I loved that Caitlin's best friend Trish counsels her to leave Adrian if he isn't making her happy.  Being in love with someone isn't treated as the be-all end-all of relationships in VELVET.  However, that leads me to an aspect I didn't love, which is that Adrian and Caitlin get into fights all the time.  The seed, of course, is that their romance is forbidden.  Vampires aren't allowed to love humans, so his relationship with her is a fake to help him stay close and guard her.  Being a fake girlfriend to the boy she loves hurts Caitlin on top of the fact she's raw with grief and strange nightmares that plague her at night.  I got her emotions, I just got tired of fight, then make up, then fight, then make up.  It was an exceedingly repetitive story beat.

VELVET does end with a great hook for the second book, involving one of my favorite characters in danger.  I definitely want to read the sequel, especially since VELVET was a very quick and relaxing read.  I think I'll also try some of the other books published by the Swoon Reads imprint.  VELVET reflects well on their style.

July 23, 2015

The Foreigner: Summer Chills @ Alley Theatre

The Foreigner, a play by Larry Shue, is hysterically funny.  The story centers around Charlie Baker, a socially awkward Englishman on holiday in Atlanta, Georgia.  His friend has to go work and leave him alone at a remote fishing lodge with the owner and three fellow guests, so he arranges accommodations for his anxiety: everyone thinks Charlie is a foreigner who can't speak English.

This play is full of secrets, including a dastardly plan that does bring some summer chills.

Jeffrey Bean is terrific as Charlie.  It's a part that involves a great deal of physical comedy, and he's up for it.  Elizabeth Bunch, who I've seen previously as Rosalind, is terrific as Catherine Simms, who is often the straight man to her family, but who still knows how to have fun.  My favorite member of the cast might've been Annalee Jeffries as Betty Meeks, the lodge owner who is ready for retirement.  She reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who lived in Georgia her entire life.

I don't want to give too much of the story away, since discovering the secrets possessed by the residents of the lodge is a true delight.  But if you are in or around Houston, try to catch a showing!  It is on at the Alley Theatre @ UH through August 9.

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July 22, 2015

Review and Giveaway: Stormbringer

Stormbringer Second book of the Wyrd
By Alis Franklin
Available now from Hydra (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review of Liesmith

STORMBRINGER, the sequel to LIESMITH, plays out the consequences of the major reveal.  I think that people who haven't read LIESMITH would be quite confused, but they're cheap books so there's no reason not to read it.

There is a shift in focus from LIESMITH.  The relationship between Sigmund and Lain takes a backseat, and they are in fact separated for most of STORMBRINGER.  Lain is imprisoned and forced on a quest for Mjölnir.  Sigmund is working to free him.  Meanwhile, Hel is fighting for better rights for the dead who didn't go to Valhalla.  It's a great plotline that combines the modern and mythological elements brilliantly as she and Sigmund's friends reframe the story and start to gain support.

The focus has also shifted from Miðgarðr to Asgard.  The first book took place mostly in our world, but STORMBRINGER takes place mostly in theirs.  This change in perspective worked well.  It helps explain more of how the world works and what's at stake.  It also helps show what Miðgarðr has to offer - namely the advancements humans have made since the Aesir paid any attention to them.  Women's rights drive the story in more ways that I expected when I picked STORMBRINGER up.

I think Alis Franklin showed good growth as a writer.  There are several different plot threads in STORMBRINGER, but they're resolved with less confusion than in LIESMITH.  I missed the central romance, but I think giving it a bit of a breather could be a good move in the long run.  I'm certainly enjoying the series enough to return for book three.

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July 21, 2015

Are you in Sync?

The SYNC program, which provides free YA audiobooks each summer, is well under way.  It runs through August 13, so there are four weeks left.  That's still plenty of time to pick up some great books.

You can go to the SYNC website to see the 2015 titles.  Each week thematically pairs a newer book with a classic, encouraging a deeper read of each title.  It's a great program, and here's hoping it continues to deliver books to the readers that need them!

July 20, 2015

Review: Hollywood Witch Hunter

Hollywood Witch Hunter By Valerie Tejeda
Available now from Bloomsbury Spark
Review copy

In Hollywood, witches have to kill to stay alive.  Hunters are born to hunt them and to protect those they prey on, even though the witches get the most power and youth from the worst people.  They still don't deserve to die.  Iris is the first girl to be born with the hunter gene, and she's been fighting to be part of the group instead of left in the kitchen (literally).

That premise is seriously retrograde, so I appreciated newly found hunter Arlo pointing out just how stupid it is.  Arlo always wanted to be a pop star, so being pressed into being a hunter hasn't made him too happy.  He's one of two love interests.  The other is Silos, an older man from Scotland who Iris dreams about before meeting.  I thought either of them were decent romantic options, but I'm so over triangles.

HOLLYWOOD WITCH HUNTER is full of great characters playing out cliches.  Iris is smart and believes her own observations over what others tell her about the world.  Her brother Knox is the kind of brother everybody wants.  Belinda, the head witch, has her own intriguing agenda going on.  But I could guess every twist and turn the story took, including the surprise ending leading into the next book in the series.

The other thing that bothered me about HOLLYWOOD WITCH HUNTER is the way that Iris starts to bond with some of the witches.  I am all for realizing that you've been indoctrinated your whole life and those people you've trained to hunt are actually people, but even as she got closer they were still killing people and Iris knew it.  Being fun to hang out with doesn't turn a murderer into a good person.

HOLLYWOOD WITCH HUNTER is Valerie Tejeda's first novel, so I hope she'll work out some of those kinks.  She's got characterization down, but she needs to find a plot of her own.  I did like that she made Iris half-Colombian, which figured into the plot.  People tend to assume that Iris is with the help, and being able to speak Spanish makes her a better investigator since she can talk to more people.

If you're interested, HOLLYWOOD WITCH HUNTER is on sale for the first week of its release for $2.99.

July 17, 2015

Interview with Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg

Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg are the authors of the Engelsfors trilogy, an international sensation.  The third and final book, THE KEY, has just been released in English from Overlook Press.  This Swedish phenomenon is the story of five teenage girls who discover that they are the Chosen Ones and must work together to defeat the demons trying to get a toe-hold in their small town of Engelsfors.  It's no wonder that it's become popular - at the heart of the story is female friendships, and the many narrators represent a diverse range of people.


The Circle 1. THE CIRCLE, the first book in the series, has won several awards and been made into a movie. What does that feel like?

Amazing and surreal. We wrote books that we wanted to read ourselves, and lucky for us, others wanted to read them too. We truly love these characters, and we’re so happy to see readers embrace them. We were very involved in the making of the movie (Sara cowrote the screenplay with director Levan Akin) and we’re very pleased about how it turned out.  

The Key 2. How did you find the balance between realistic and paranormal elements?

We tried not to treat them as seperate storylines, but to let them come together. That’s when things become really exciting, in our opinion - when the magical and the everyday clash. It was important not to let the Chosen Ones become too powerful too quickly because then they would be able to solve all their problems with magic. And at a certain point, when there’s too much at stake, it’s not realistic for them to care about homework anymore. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that they reach that point in The Key …  

3. I loved how developed the setting of Engelsfors was. Were you inspired by any actual Swedish small towns?

We were somewhat inspired by Mats’s old hometown, Fagersta. It’s also an old industrial town, with high unemployment, surrounded by forest. Mats hated living there when he was a teenager and felt very claustrophobic. If you were a guy and not into sports, you were pretty much done for. But Fagersta is a much nicer place than Engelsfors. There’s no apocalypse there, at least not as far as we know. Fun fact: The members of the famous rock band The Hives are also from Fagersta and they actually wrote a song for the soundtrack of the film. It’s called Blood Red Moon and the lyrics are based on The Circle. One of the weird of wonderful things that have happened to us during the past five years.  

4. Rights to the Engelsfors trilogy have sold to 29 countries. What's the strangest thing that's changed in translation?

English is really the only language we know well enough to be able to read ourselves. So we don’t really know any details about, say, the Japanese text or the Russian or Italian. We love it when our translators ask us questions that make us think about the text from new perspectives. For instance, when do certain characters put away their titles? Or when the translators tell us things we haven’t really thought of ourselves, like the fact that Ida only really curses when she is scared or surprised.  

Fire 5. There's currently a big push for diversity in American YA. The Englesfors trilogy (first book published in 2011) has a variety of diverse characters. Was that something you thought consciously about?

Yes, definitely. SPOILER WARNING THE CIRCLE/FIRE From the very beginning we decided that our ”main romance”, our ”will they or won’t they”, would be between two girls. END OF SPOILER We discuss these things a lot and we’re constantly trying to learn more.

 6. If you got elemental magic powers, which element do you think you'd get?

SARA: I would probably get water because the idea of being able to hear people’s thoughts freaks me out. Telepathic communication would be awesome though. But Mats and I more or less have that already. Wood would be very interesting. Or air, because it would be cool to be able to become invisble. And very scary probably, because there’s so much you don’t want to find out about people…

MATS: I would love to be able to fly.  

7. What are you working on next?

MATS: My next novel comes out in Sweden in September. It’s a horror novel about a 12 hour trip on a cruise ship crossing the Baltic Sea, and it’s called Färjan (so far, our agents call it Blood Line in English). I am also working on a trilogy of children’s books about monsters, and some other stuff.

SARA: My next book comes out in September in Sweden. It’s called Time for Each Other (Just nu har vi varandra) and it’s a children’s book about time and life, illustrated by amazing artist Maria Fröhlich (”The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”, Shadow Show, IDW). I have many projects – a graphic novel, a web series, a couple of secret ones – in collaboration with others. But I’m also going to start writing my first solo novel soon. It will be in the same genre as the Engelsfors books.

July 16, 2015

Review: The Porcupine of Truth

Porcupine of Truth By Bill Konigsberg
Available now from Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic)
Review copy
Read my review of  Openly Straight

Last year I read a Bill Konigsberg novel for the first time.  OPENLY STRAIGHT was a good summer read, but not one of my favorites of the year or anything.  His recent release, THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH, still caught my attention with its adorable cover and a blurb that promised an epic road trip.

The story starts when Carson's mom leaves him at the zoo.  They've come to Billings, Montana for the summer to help his dying father in his final days, and she needs to ditch him for a bit to take care of things.  At the zoo Carson meets Aisha, who has been kicked out by her father because she's a lesbian.  It's the beginning of a fast friendship between two weirdos with similarly off-beat senses of humor. 

Yes, there is an epic road trip.  Carson and Aisha set out to find what happened to Carson's grandfather.  He was a missing person, but they found evidence in the basement that he was in contact with his wife after he officially disappeared.  I liked that their road trip encounters a lot of problems, including car trouble and difficulty finding places to stay.  It's a pretty realistic road trip for two teenagers without many resources and rapidly dwindling parental approval.

There is a lot of religious discussion, which doesn't bother me, but I know isn't everyone's cup of tea.  Carson doesn't really believe in anything, and Aisha is turning against her childhood beliefs since her very Christian father treated her in such an un-Christlike way.  On their road trip, they encounter people who believe a variety of different things and discuss them.  I thought it was a good reflection of reality and very revealing of all the characters.

THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH is a very funny novel that tackles tough subjects like alcoholism, homeless LGBTQ youth, and racism.  (Aisha is black.)  The irreverent tone balances the dark matter without being disrespectful of it.  Definitely worth a read.

July 14, 2015

Review: The Executioner's Daughter

The Executioner's Daughter By Jane Hardstaff
Available now from Egmont
Review copy

This middle grade novel starts like a historical novel.  Moss lives with her father in the Tower of London.  Anne Boleyn is still alive, but rumors hint that it won't be for long.  Moss is frustrated by her life, circumscribed by the bounds of the tower.  Even worse, she has to catch the heads (in a basket) of the people her father executes.

Then THE EXECUTIONER'S DAUGHTER takes a turn for the supernatural.  The folkloric nature of that which lies in wait for Moss makes this seem like a natural transition.  It might jar those who expected an actual historical novel, but it doesn't change the tone of the novel.

There's a good balance between Moss's legitimate grievances against her father and her inability to see the sacrifices he's made to give her a good life.  Running into and banding together with a thief teaches Moss a lot about what it means to be hungry and desperate.  That empathy serves her in good stead as the danger grows.

I liked that the historical aspects aren't dropped completely.  Anne Boleyn's oncoming fate continues to be a significant part of the background, and the two children face realistic threats as often as they face supernatural ones.  It's hard out there for a street urchin.

The sequel, THE RIVER'S DAUGHTER, is not available in the US.  I just might order it from The Book Depository, however.  THE EXECUTIONER'S DAUGHTER is a complete adventure; I don't know what the sequel might be about.  It's a very good adventure, though, so I'd like to find out.

July 13, 2015

Review: Don't Ever Change

Don't Ever Change By M. Beth Bloom
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy

Eva wants to be a writer, but she's thrown for a loop right before the summer after her senior year when her teacher tells her that her story feels fake and that she needs to learn to write what she knows.  Eva makes a pact with herself to get out there and do things this summer, to experience things so that she can be a better writer.

It's honestly a good plan.  Eva makes some good inroads too, by taking a chance with cute stranger Elliot and taking a job as a camp counselor with her friend Foster.  But changing yourself is a tough road, especially when your default is to coast and let others be the movers and shakers.

Eva has the same problem as many of her main characters: she's a hard person to like.  She can be abrupt and overly critical.  She has a tendency to focus on her own problems (like most teenagers).  She's often overly convinced of her own right-ness.  This sometimes made reading her point of view in DON'T EVER CHANGE unpleasant, but it also made her a believable teen girl.

DON'T EVER CHANGE feels very realistic all around, despite Eva's obsession with shoving her life story into something literary and writeable.  There's a pettiness and mundanity to it.  This does mean that at times I long for more events.  Even a death is barely a blip in the story, someone Eva didn't really know.  Nothing really happens except for her personal journey.  If you don't get invested in that, there's no point in reading the book.

I did enjoy Eva's complicated love life.  She has a long-distance boyfriend and a guy she makes out with and another flirtation and it sort of just is.  The only issues with Eva having multiple relationships is when there's competitions for the same guys.  At the same time, as a counselor Eva is in charge of a thirteen-year-old in a relationship with another thirteen-year-old.  She's got to figure out what boundaries are appropriate for adults to set for children, because that's where she is now.

DON'T EVER CHANGE is not an easily approachable book.  It might even be a shock to fans of the author, since M. Beth Bloom's first book involved vampires.  But I do think it is a book that will resonate with pricklier girls, with those people who try but just have trouble expressing themselves to others.

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July 10, 2015

Review: Ice Cream Summer

Ice Cream Summer By Peter Sís
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy

Peter Sís is a three-time Caldecott Honoree and a Hans Christian Anderson Award Winner.  ICE CREAM SUMMER makes it easy to see why his children's books are so celebrated.

The text is a letter from a boy to his grandpa, explaining all the fun things he's doing this summer.  He's learning about math and maps, for instance.  The illustrations deepen the text, and show how the boy is approaching his studies in more detail.  Everything relates back to ice cream.  How many scoops does he eat, and how many scoops does his dog eat?  Which civilization ate ice cream first, and who invented the waffle cone (and why)?

ICE CREAM SUMMER is full of facts about everyone's favorite treat, presented in a breezy way.  There are lots of layers for children to interact with on the level they're ready for.  That is, kids who are learning addition and subtraction might be able to work the math problems on their own.  Others might want to draw their own ice-cream map or read the smaller passages with more historical detail.

Sís' pictures not only add to the text, they're also appealing in their own right.  He uses a dreamy and soft palette that echoes the colors of common ice creams, and the art has melty soft edges.  Everything works together thematically.  And who doesn't love ice cream?  Even my lactose intolerant nephew likes the dairy-free frozen treats that he's allowed.

ICE CREAM SUMMER is a perfect treat of a children's book.  It has a cute story, great pictures, and invites readers to explore further on their own.

July 9, 2015

Review: Valiant

Valiant By Sarah McGuire
Available now from EgmontUSA (Lerner)
Review copy

VALIANT is exactly what I look for in my fairytales retold.  Young Saville's father has a stroke, meaning that she has to disguise herself as a boy to keep up the family business.  (She's a tailor, and no man would let his measurements be taken by a woman.)  When the young boy she takes in is threatened, she faces down two giants and ends up becoming the country's hero.

This take on "The Brave Little Tailor" features a heroine who is intelligent and unsurprisingly valiant.  She might not be a physical match for an army of giants led by a mad duke, but she's not going to roll over and let the people she loves be annihilated.   I also liked the complications in her life, from a father who loves fabric more than his daughter to a man who appreciates her but already has a fiancee. 

This modern update keeps a strong traditional feel amid all the progressiveness.  I think it will be a big hit with fans of Gail Carson Levine and Shannon Hale.  Like those authors, Sarah McGuire serves up an inventively adventurous heroine, an age-appropriate romance, and a lovingly crafted world.  Even the giants aren't mere flat monsters but an entire society with a variety of personalities.

This middle-grade debut is a charmer.  I hope it doesn't get lost as one of the books on Egmont's last list, thankfully being distributed by Lerner.

July 8, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday: Soundless

Soundless "Waiting On" Wednesday is hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine.

Richelle Mead would be a guilty pleasure of mine, if I had any shame.  I've read several of her series, both adult and YA, and found enjoyment in them all. She marries zippy plots with characters that get under your skin and makes it look easy.  Her books are funny and sexy and exciting.  When she has a new book coming out, I pay attention.

Here's the publishers synopsis of SOUNDLESS, out November 10, 2015:

From Richelle Mead, the #1 internationally bestselling author of Vampire Academy and Bloodlines, comes a breathtaking new fantasy steeped in Chinese folklore.

For as long as Fei can remember, there has been no sound in her village, where rocky terrain and frequent avalanches prevent residents from self-sustaining. Fei and her people are at the mercy of a zipline that carries food up the treacherous cliffs from Beiguo, a mysterious faraway kingdom.

When villagers begin to lose their sight, deliveries from the zipline shrink and many go hungry. Fei’s home, the people she loves, and her entire existence is plunged into crisis, under threat of darkness and starvation.

But soon Fei is awoken in the night by a searing noise, and sound becomes her weapon.

Richelle Mead takes readers on a triumphant journey from the peak of Fei’s jagged mountain village to the valley of Beiguo, where a startling truth and an unlikely romance will change her life forever....

July 6, 2015

Review: Tangled Webs

Tangled Webs By Lee Bross
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

TANGLED WEBS is the first historical novel by Lee Bross, who has also written YA under the name Lanie Bross and NA as L.E. Bross.  It is a rather flawed novel, particularly in the way that characters disappear until they're suddenly needed for the plot.  At the same time, I found it hard to put TANGLED WEBS down.

Arista works for Bones, who bought her from the orphanage when she was a child.  She acts as Lady A, the face of his blackmail operation.  Everyone knows her mask, because she's the only one who has personal contact with clients.  She takes all the risk with only a knife and her best friend Nic to protect her.  When TANGLED WEBS opens, Arista is falling out of love with Nic because she is more desperate than ever to escape Bones and go straight, and she has realized that Nic wants to become Bones and loves this life.

Sooner than she expects, Arista has her chance.  But she ends up working for a man who just might be worse.  Grae, the son of a merchant, might be her only way out.  Associating with Arista might ruin him, however.

It's a tangled web of a plot, with lots of clashing motivations.  It's juicy stuff, and the setting of London in 1725 provides as intriguing social milieu.  I rather liked Arista, who is good with a knife and not a bad thief, but who is desperate to find a way to break her way free without losing her soul.  She wants redemption as much as she wants escape from the men who seek to control her, and that morality limits her choices in a good way.

I did appreciate that TANGLED WEBS mostly escapes the dreaded love triangle, despite their being two men in Arista's life.  At the same time, she goes for and spends the most time with Grae, who is a rather straightforward sort.  I can see why she likes him: honest, honorable, loyal.  Nic, who she is in the process of getting over, drives the plot forward and actually has some ambiguity to him.  He and Arista share a tight past, but is he still her friend or has he decided she's expendable?  He's a source of internal and external conflict, and yet he disappears to give space to a straightforward romance.

Lee Bross can definitely write the historical side convincingly and spin a plot that keeps the pages turning.  TANGLED WEBS has a bit of a character problem, one that hopefully can be course-corrected in the next book in the series.  There's potential here, for sure.

July 3, 2015

Review Update: Capture the Flag

Catch the Flag I've always been one to share the love of books, so if I read something I think someone else will like, I make sure to get a copy into their hands.  CATCH THE FLAG is one of my books I've given my younger cousins, and they told me that it is one of their favorites.

It's not entirely surprising.  This middle grade mystery is set in one of the Smithsonian buildings in Washington D.C., a place where they've spent plenty of time themselves.  Plus, Kate Messner is a skilled author who knows her way around writing an exciting action scene.

Now that you have a recommendation from two girls actually in the target age group, here's what I wrote my original review in 2012:

I choose to read CAPTURE THE FLAG because I needed a quick, easy read.  During a gala at the Smithsonian, the newly restored Star-Spangled Banner is stolen.  A blizzard shuts down the airport for a day, leaving the thieves stranded as well as holiday travelers.  Three children decide that they're going to discover the identity of the thieves.

Anna Revere-Hobbs, the ringleader, wants to be a reporter like her mother.  Henry Thorn wants to play his video games and not go home since his dad is remarrying and moving.  José McGilligan loves reading Harry Potter and collecting quotes.  All three of them, coincidentally, turn out to be children of a secret society protecting art.  CAPTURE THE FLAG ends with the possibility of more adventures for these three.

Not billed on the cover or flap and likely not returning is the even younger Sinan, an eight-year-old Pakistani boy accompanying his parents in the Sounds for the Small Planet symphony.  The three befriend him and become personally dedicated to finding the cause when the symphony is accused of stealing the flag.

The thieves are pretty obvious, but younger readers might fall for the red herring.  I expected CAPTURE THE FLAG to contain some history, which it does, but I was not expecting the subtle exploration of racism.  For example, it is not coincidental that a group of dark-skinned foreigners are used as the fall guys.

There are some fun set pieces where the kids crawl around the baggage area, but I don't think there's much in CAPTURE THE FLAG to interest older readers.  It's a good, timely read for young readers but too simple for a crossover audience.

July 2, 2015

Review: Ghosts of Shanghai

Ghosts of Shanghai First in a series
By Julian Sedgwick
Available now from Hachette Children's
Review copy

The beginning of GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI is rough.  I liked the description of Ruby and her friends catching a fox spirit, but then the story moves back and forth in time rapidly to catch the reader up to what they need to know about Ruby's history and what's coming next.  It's a rather choppy and disorienting beginning.  But then GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI begins to find its groove.

One of GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI's biggest strengths is the setting.  It is the 1920s, and the Qing Dynasty has passed but the People's Repulic of China is still on the horizon.  It's a time of great tension.  It's dangerous for Ruby, since she is foreign, although she has one advantage over her parents: she speaks Chinese.  It's dangerous for her two best friends, who are communists.  Then there's her other friend, whose family was killed by communists.  Violence is brewing even before you throw supernatural nasties into the mix.

Ruby and her friends like to hand out at the old White Cloud Temple, and they're the only ones who can see that something supernatural is happening.  But then a new caretaker comes to the temple and starts to teach them how to face these creatures, instead of relying on an old book with no context.  (A dangerous prospect, indeed.)

And then you throw some mobsters and a kidnapping into the mix.

I really enjoyed the density of the plot of GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI.  There's lots of juicy historical fiction details, including multiple corrupt governments clashing against each other.  There's also lots of great cultural details, including how people get treated differently based on how they're perceived.  Ruby is a bit too good at transcending some of those barriers, but she is the protagonist in a book.  I liked the mythological details too, which draw from Chinese stories and traditions.

I wish GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI had a smoother start, but it levels out into a layered treat.  I believe there are sequels to come, and I look forward to Ruby's future adventures in Shanghai.

July 1, 2015

Review: Anything Could Happen

Anything Could Happen By Will Walton
Available now from Push (Scholastic)
Review copy

Will Walton's debut novel ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN is sweet, if rather uneventful.  Tretch is closeted and deeply in love with his straight best friend, Matt.  Lots of people joke about them being gay, since Matt has two dads, and Tretch is torn about the fact that he secretly wishes it were true.

ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN is a terrific character study.  Tretch is a nice kid and it is heartening to see him grow confident in himself and open up to his family and friends (old and new).  I can see ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN being cathartic for teens struggling with the same issues that plague Tretch.  Do you tell someone you have a crush when you know they won't reciprocate?  Will your religious parents accept you?

There's potential for conflict in ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.  Beyond the issue of coming out (or not), Tretch has another secret: he loves to dance and choreographs dances to his favorite songs.  There's also Matt's new girlfriend, who Tretch feels jealous of.  Or there's the girl whose abrasiveness is hiding her crush on Tretch.  But everything comes to a head in a soft, gentle manner.  This is just a very soothing sort of book, the kind that tells you things will work out alright even when they seem dire at the time.

ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN is a pleasant read, with its optimistic realism.  It is not for those who are looking for an eventful, plotty book, but it is not without its charms.  Sometimes short and sweet gets the job done.


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