Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On my "to read over Christmas break" list

So excited to have two weeks off with NO book reviews due on the immediate horizon-- so these next two weeks are devoted to the books that I've been wanting to savor.  Here are a few titles, in no particular order:
* This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales
* Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
* How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny
* Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, by April Genevieve Tucholke
* Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Not sure if I'll make it through all five or not, since savoring is the goal... but I sure am looking forward to lots of hours in a comfy chair in front of the Christmas tree or upstairs in the reading room!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Hey! I'm a guest on Eugenia Sozzi's blog!

I have been woefully remiss in getting book reviews posted here for the past month or so, but with two glorious weeks of vacation, hope to get that rectified.  But, hey-- if I can't keep my own blog up-to-date, at least I can pop in on someone else's blog as a guest!  Check it out:

Monday, October 14, 2013

One of my favorites over the past couple of months

If you don't feel like waiting till April when Far From You comes out, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson is out now, and it is fabulous.  Dystopian books are a dime a dozen these days, but Johnson's is original and beautiful and very much its own story.  Here's my Goodreads review:

The country that used to be Brazil is the setting for this lushly-imagined, futuristic story that blends art and technology and love in its many iterations. June Costa has grown up in Palmeres Tres, a vast pyramid city in which the wealthy live on the upper tiers and the poor live in the Verde, the green and stinking lower level whose algae produces the needed oxygen for the city. 400 years ago, the actions of men led to the Y plague, which destroyed a large percentage of humanity. Palmeres Tres was established largely as a matriarchal society, given that men had gotten the world into the mess. The queen rules with a group of Aunties, or advisors, with a Summer King and a Winter King alternately elected every five years, but sacrificed at the end of the first year. June and her best friend Gil get swept up in the latest election and are ecstatic when Enki, the beautiful boy from the Verde, is declared the new king. Enki is not the settled, discreet king that the Queen and the Aunties might have wished for: he and Gil quickly enter a passionate relationship, and when he learns that June is an artist, the two of them develop a close friendship. June manages to convince herself that she and Enki are only about the art, but as time goes on and the countdown to his sacrificial dealth draws closer, the triangle between her and Enki and Gil grows more complex. Alaya Dawn Johnson adds to a sparse field of wonderfully-written science fiction featuring people of color.
Completely original and luminous and just can't-even-think-of-putting-it-down amazing.

Far From You, due out April 2014

I'm starting to review more and more books via NetGalley, and really appreciate the ease of the electronic format for ARCs.  My latest read courtesy of NG is Far From You, by Tess Sharpe, due out in April 2014.  Here's my review from Goodreads.

Prepare to be grabbed in the opening paragraphs, when the narrator, Sophie, relates that the first time that she almost died was when she was 14 and in a car driven by her best friend's brother. Trev and Mina walked away with minor injuries; Sophie almost didn't make it, and her many injuries led to a pain killer addiction. The second time she almost died is when she was 17. Mina wants to make a detour on the way to a party. On a lonely stretch of road, the two girls are attacked by a gunman who knocks Sophie unconscious and shoots and kills Mina. But what looks like a random shooting, or a drug deal gone bad, isn't. Because even though Sophie has been clean for several months when this happens, the police find a bottle of Oxy in her jacket pocket. And Sophie knows that she heard the killer say "I warned you" before he shoots Mina. The police don't believe Sophie with her history of addiction, so she knows it's up to her to find out who wanted Mina dead. Chapters alternate between the present and flashbacks over the past three years, slowly revealing more and more about Sophie's and Mina's relationship, and how Trev and their other friends factor into the equation. As layers are peeled away, the action ramps up, and readers won't be able to stop turning the pages until they get to the end of this utterly compelling, character-driven whodunit.

Electronic ARC provided courtesy of NetGalley.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Edge-of-your-seat suspense with The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die

On Friday, we finally got the first batch of books that we had ordered before school got out.  They're usually delivered to us over the summer and waiting when we get back to school that last week of August.  A little later this year, but no less like Christmas opening up the boxes and seeing all the possibility in those piles of books.  We'll process them and get them into circulation and watch some of the kids light up-- because there are always those kids who love the idea of unexplored "new" books as much as their librarians do!  I brought several home to read.  Tore through this one... it's edge-of-your-seat suspense.  Here's my review of The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die from Goodreads:

She regains consciousness on a hard wood floor.
A tooth is loose and the inside of her mouth tastes like blood.
Her left hand is in severe pain and she soon realizes that two of her fingers are missing fingernails.
The voices of two men argue about whether to kill her.
She has no idea who she is or why she's there.

So begins this roller coaster of a story. One of the men leaves, and the nameless narrator manages to draw on self-defense skills she didn't know she had, overpower the other man, and steal his car and his gun, driving for her life. But her one attempt to go to the police backfires when the officer gets a report that she's escaped from a nearby mental hospital after killing an orderly there. Has she? Is her memory really that fragmented? Who can she trust? Who is going to such effort to draw a net tighter and tighter until they can recapture her?

Over the roughly 36 hours that she is on the run, bits and pieces start falling into place, but can even knowing more about why all of this is happening save her if she can't find someone who will believe her bizarre story?

Chris Crutcher's Whale Talk

Every time I booktalk this one, a student snatches it up afterward, and I always feel like he or she is in for such a treat if they haven't come across Chris Crutcher before.  His books are edgy, humorous, and pertinent.  He's used to being on banned book lists and to irritating adults.  He doesn't back off of tough subjects because he knows that we all need to have the realities of this world acknowledged and our own small worlds stretched.  Here's my review of Whale Talk from Goodreads:

TJ is a third white, a third black, a third Japanese in a very white community in Washington state. He's an athletic guy, but as much as the football coach and the basketball coach hound him about his duty to the school, TJ shies away from organized sports... he's never liked the air of entitlement and superiority that he sees among some of the Cutter High coaches and athletes. But when a teacher he respects asks him to take the lead in starting a swim team, TJ agrees... and goes on to assemble the oddest assortment of misfits one could imagine. But these misfits have a lot to teach the folks of Cutter High about sportsmanship and heroism and truly playing as a team. There's a lot going on in the book other than the sports: child abuse, marital abuse, prejudice, bullying. But Crutcher is at his best when he's directing his sharp, intelligent humor at tough issues that adults don't always want to admit that kids face.

That gray area between biography and incredibly accurate historical fiction

Struggling to understand primary sources and how you can track them down for your research papers?  Want to read a book that bills itself as a "documentary novel" (and so, fiction on some level) and puts you right in the middle of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement from varying perspectives?  Look no further than Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's No Crystal Stair.  Here's my Goodreads review:

Fascinating. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson did extensive research on the life of her great uncle, Lewis Michaux, "the Professor" of Harlem. From his childhood in Newport News, Virginia, through his later life in New York, she uses a multitude of voices to give a somewhat fictionalized account of his life. But the amount of digging she did is impressive, and the fictional text brims with primary source material. I've marked this both as biography and historical fiction, because while Nelson takes some liberties, she's making very educated guesses about conversations and relationships based on the wide variety of sources she was able to track down. Readers are introduced to many of the leading black figures of the early and mid 20th century as they come into Lewis's orbit at his famous National Memorial African Bookstore. In the process, they get a great example of world-class researching and story telling. A powerful narrative of an unconventional man who left his mark deeply.

Monday, September 16, 2013

See Europe... read a book

No, it's not a travel guide-- even better.  13 Little Blue Envelopes tells the story of 17-year-old Ginny, and how a letter from her favorite aunt (who died three months ago) sends her on a whirlwind quest for self-discovery across Europe.  Here's my Goodreads review:

Such a fun read. Virginia's "runaway aunt"-- her mom's younger sister, a flighty, creative artist-- left for Europe several years ago without telling the rest of her family, and they learned a few months ago that she had died over there after a bout with a long illness. But now Virginia has received a letter from her aunt, charging her with setting off on an adventure that will follow in Aunt Peg's footsteps. Before her death, Aunt Peg arranged everything, and Ginny can't take money or a cell phone or anything outside of what will fit in one backpack. First stop-- a Chinese restaurant in New York City, where she picks up a package that consists of 13 numbered envelopes. After she has followed the instructions in one letter, she may open the next. Ginny's adventure leads her first to London, where she meets Aunt Peg's friend Richard, and then to Scotland, Rome, Paris, the Netherlands, Copenhagen, and the Greek islands. Along the way, she slowly becomes aware of how much she is capable of, even after her backpack (and the 13th unread letter) is stolen in the Greek isles. A touch of romance adds to the story but does not overwhelm it. Readers who dream of their own European adventure will love rooting for Ginny and watching her grow during her journey.

Bon voyage!

Monday, September 9, 2013

172 Hours on the Moon-- a potential 2013 "Teens' Top Ten"

I hadn't heard of 172 Hours on the Moon until I was looking over the list from YALSA's Teens' Top Ten nominees for this year-- 28 nominees which will be narrowed down to the top ten by the teens who participate in the voting this month.  Not a bad book, especially if you have visions of a little interplanetary travel yourself one of these days.  Here's the review I posted on Goodreads:

In 2019, 3 teenagers are chosen through a lottery to head to the moon with NASA astronauts. What NASA doesn't tell anyone is that in the moon-travel heyday, some unexplainable stuff happened during the various missions, and they need to get back up there (hence, the "teens win the chance of a lifetime" lottery... get the public psyched about space travel in a time of budget deficits). So Mia from Norway, Antoine from France, and Midori from Japan make their way to the moon and to some incredibly creepy stuff (view spoiler). Character development is definitely not the strong point in this novel, but the book is certainly a page-turner, especially if you like your space travel on the spooky and suspenseful side.

If you are between the ages of 12 and 18 and you haven't voted yet, there's still time.  You can vote online for your three favorites out of the twenty-eight nominees at http://www.ala.org/yalsa/reads4teens/.   The ballots are open through October 19, and the top ten will be announced on the YALSA website the week of October 21.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sports fiction with a heart

Somehow, in my years reviewing books for School Library Journal, I've become one of the go-to reviewers for middle grade and young adult sports fiction.  Which is kind of funny, because I was an uncoordinated kid who hated PE, and as an adult, am definitely not an armchair quarterback (or a watcher of any sports, really).  But there are some wonderful novels being published today that feature main characters who are involved in different sports, and they make for some great reading.  Recently, I've come across two excellent books.  You'll have to wait for a review of the first one, The Pitcher, since that's one of my SLJ books and the review won't be out for a couple of months. 

The other one, Boy21, was one of YALSA's top ten Best Fiction for Young Adults picks for 2013, with good reason.  Written by Matthew Quick, the same guy who gave us The Silver Linings Playbook, it's a story of friendship between a white kid and black kid in a racially divided town.  A friendship between two damaged kids who turn to basketball and outer space for healing.  Here's my Goodreads review:
It's Finley's senior year, and basketball has been his life since he was little... it was his escape after his mother's death. Growing up in a poor, racially divided town, he knows that it is his ticket out. When his coach asks him to befriend a student who is transferring in, Finley doesn't hesitate. Even when his coach tells him that this new student, Russ, is a nationally ranked basketball player who is having trouble coping since the death of his parents, Finley doesn't see Russ as a threat. Russ isn't interested in basketball anymore. He calls himself Boy21, and his conversations all focus around outer space, and the fact that his parents will be picking him up from Earth within the next several weeks. Coach is determined that Finley help Russ get back into basketball... he believes that playing again will help Russ in his grieving process. Finley wants to do the right thing, but he can't confide the facts of Russ's background to his girlfriend or anyone else. And if Russ is as good as Coach says, Finley could be talking himself out of his starting position on the team. In this warmly-written, multilayered story, Finley is an engaging protagonist. And the friendship that he offers Russ comes back to him when he needs it most.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Unbreakable, by Kami Garcia

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.

Kami Garcia is well-known to lots of teens already as one of the co-authors in the Beautiful Creatures series.  Here's my review of her first solo YA venture, which also appears on Goodreads.

Kennedy and her mom have a nice life in DC. Kennedy is fairly introverted, preferring drawing in her room to going out to party. But when Kennedy comes home one evening and discovers that her mom has died of apparent heart failure, her world quickly crumbles. She can't imagine moving in with her aunt, so they compromise on a boarding school. A couple of nights before Kennedy is due to move from the house, she is wakened violently, unable to breathe, and discovers her cat on her chest sucking the air from her. Two strangers burst into her room with guns and shoot the malevolent spirit that was trying to kill her. The two strangers turn out to be hot twin brothers Lukas and Jared, and they explain to Kennedy that her mom wasn't the only one to die that fateful night-- her mom was apparently one of five members of a secret society charged with protecting the world from the demon Andras, and all five members were killed in the same way that night. Since membership in the Legion of the Black Dove is passed through a family, they've come to convince Kennedy to join forces with them and two other teens, Alara and Priest. Kennedy would prefer to stay in the home where she and her mother spent the past 17 years until it's time to leave for boarding school, but the malevolent spirits take that option off the table when they destroy the house. Kennedy and the twins escape in the nick of time and she reluctantly joins the other four as they search for the weapon that old journals say will destroy the demon. I was swept up in the beginning with good solid character building, but as the story went on, I found that the characters actually got more two-dimensional, and the love triangle between Kennedy and Jared and Lukas just seemed too rushed and weird. Alara's a perfectly lovely girl, even if she does have a tough exterior, yet both of the twins seem completely captivated by Kennedy as soon as they meet her. Really? But the creepy factor is high, with the group traveling from an abandoned mansion to an abandoned orphanage, to an abandoned prison, and meeting lots of violent ghosts along the way (which they are able to vanquish with Priest's cool homemade anti-ghost duct-taped contraptions). The action-driven novel culminates in a final showdown between Kennedy and the ghost of a serial killer in the haunted prison, and (** SPOILER ALERT **) when the weapon that the kids have managed to assemble has the final piece put in, it does indeed destroy the serial killer's ghost, but-- OOPS!-- apparently gives Andras even MORE power than he had to begin with. Will the group go on to vanquish the demon in upcoming volumes? Will Kennedy ever believe she's one of the group? Will Lukas and Jared learn to get along? Lots of questions remain to be answered in this overall fun if somewhat contrived quick read.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review of Maggie Stiefvater's The Dream Thieves

Maggie Stiefvater is one of the most compelling young adult authors writing today.  Her series and stand-alone novels are thought-provoking and beautifully written.   The Dream Thieves, the second in her Raven Cycle, is no exception... here's my Goodreads review:

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.

This second book in the Raven Boys series has a different rhythm than the first. It's focused much more on Ronan, and we learn about his ability to "steal" things from his dreams (hence the title), bringing them back into the waking world. He got this gift from his father, but he's not the only one in town who has the ability: a schoolmate, Kavinsky, is able to do the same thing, to darker purposes. The storyline involving Gansey, Blue, Adam, and Noah and the quest for Glendower progresses minimally... the emphasis here is really on what Ronan's abilities are going to bring to the table in the final installment. A worthy second installment... looking forward to the next one. Stiefvater's writing style is just beautiful.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Choker-- a Virginia Reader's Choice nominee in the high school category for 2013-2014

Choker, by Elizabeth Woods, is the story of friendship gone wrong... one friend getting a little too possessive of another friend.  Plenty of creepiness and suspense:  if you've seen the movie The Roommate, you know what you're in for.

Cara and Zoe were best friends when they were younger, until Cara's family moved away in fifth grade.  Now 17, Cara comes home from track practice one day to find that Zoe is in her bedroom, on the run from a troubled situation at home involving her stepdad.  Cara agrees to hide her, and at first it's great to renew their friendship.  Cara has tried over the past several years to stay out of the way of the popular girls at school, especially Alexis and Sydney, who make fun of her, and having Zoe around bolsters her self-esteem.  But then Sydney dies-- an apparent accidental drowning in the pool.  And not too soon after, Alexis disappears.  Cara feels more and more uncomfortable around Zoe, who vacillates between wanting to help Cara become more popular and resenting the time Cara spends with anyone other than herself.  As Zoe's behavior becomes more and more bizarre and possessive, Cara becomes convinced that her old friend knows more about what happened to Sydney and Alexis than she's letting on.  This dark roller-coaster of a story will have readers grabbing their seats as they race to the finish... with a surprise loop-de-loop at the end.

Thoughts on Lauren Myracle's The Infinite Moment of Us

Just finished The Infinite Moment of Us
Lauren Myracle tends to write humorously and poignantly and in a way that makes you sit up and pay attention. I loved Shine, and the several that she wrote before that one-- Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks and all those other kind-of-lighthearted-but-kind-of-not stories that show how well she gets teens. That's why reading this one was a disappointment on several levels. Wren and Charlie are two-dimensional characters whose dialog sounds like a scripted after-school special. Wren's BFF Tessa and Tessa's boyfriend P.G. (who goes from being a sleezy pick-up artist to the best boyfriend of all time in 30 seconds flat) are both too good to be true. And Myracle's kind of in-your-face insistence on including a couple of fairly graphic sex scenes gave me the impression that she was trying to create a more contemporary Forever. I probably would have found the sex scenes less gratuitous and more important to the story development if Wren wasn't SO blushing and giggly every time Charlie looked at her.
Not a terrible story... but not what we've come to expect from this author.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The World According to Hey-Soos

One of my favorite things about Deadline was the interplay between main character Ben and a figure he starts meeting in his dreams around the time that he is diagnosed: Hey-Soos.  When he tells his therapist Marla about Hey-Soos, she has this to say:  "You're aware that H-e-y-s-o-o-s in Spanish is spelled J-e-s-u-s."  To which Ben replies, "I am aware of that, but I'm pretty sure he spells it this way.  I mean, he didn't say that, but in the dream, I know it." 
Ben's response to what Hey-Soos looks like?  "Like he should be pronouncing his name the other way.  You know, sandals, bathrobe, got that hippie thing going.  Dark, could be Mid-Eastern or Latino.  Definitely a guy who gets harassed by Homeland Security."
And whoever Hey-Soos is, he's got some solid wisdom to impart to Ben.  You'll have to read the book yourself to get the specifics, but my man Chris Crutcher is a pretty amazing guy to have created this character who helps Ben slowly get his act together.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Finishing up thoughts on Deadline and The Fault in Our Stars

Finished reading (or listening to) Deadline.  Here's my two cents from my Goodreads review:

I listened to the audio version of this story at roughly the same time that I was re-reading
The Fault in Our Stars. Both involve main characters dealing with terminal illnesses, and both are quite brilliantly written, weaving substance in with a variety of emotions and plenty of humor. I do think that Crutcher pulls back from the more painful emotions toward the end, making the last couple of chapters come across as somewhat glib. Nonetheless, Ben Wolf's quest for knowledge and truth will resonate with teens.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Main characters with an incurable disease

Tell someone you're reading a great book about a character who has just found out he or she is dying of an incurable disease, and your friend may think you're a glutton for punishment.  But some of these books are among the most life-affirming and lively that I've ever read.  I'm currently reading two:  John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, and Chris Crutcher's DeadlineThe Fault in Our Stars is actually a re-read since my adult book club is discussing it at this month's meeting and it's been a while since I read it.    It's been good to reacquaint myself with Hazel and Augustus.  And as I'm listening to a great audio production of Deadline, I've decided that Ben Wolf may be my favorite Chris Crutcher protagonist ever.  The thing about both of these books-- and so many others that follow a similar vein-- is that the characters so fully embrace the time they have left.  They've taken the knowledge of their illness and made the decision to make each moment count.  Sure, the story is likely to have some tears by the end as you've gotten to know the characters... but if you avoid these two, you're missing some great humor and truly compelling storytelling from two masters.