March 1, 2015

February 2015 Round up

It snowed yesterday, which is why this post didn't go up. That, and it was a super busy month for me between work and getting the Cybils blog set for the summer, which means blogging got pushed to the bottom of the pile. I do miss blogging, and being able to comment and read everyone's blogs -- I do skim -- hopefully March will be a better month for that.

I did still find time to read books, and my favorite book this month was this:

The Shadow Cabinet
I was SUPER excited the other day when I actually HAND SOLD the first in the series TO A TEEN. Seriously. I did a happy dance. Not enough people read Maureen.

As for the rest:

Graphic Novels
El Deafo
I Was Here
The Slanted Worlds

Middle Grade
Boys of Blur
The Castle Behind Thorns

The Forgotten Sisters
The Luck Uglies

The Swallow

The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra
Nuts to You
Did you read anything fantastic this month?

February 27, 2015

The Swallow

by Charis Cotter
First sentence: "There's no place for me,"
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It's kind of confusing and a little bit creepy, though the chapters are short and to the point. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Polly is lost in a sea of siblings and foster siblings. Her father is a pastor and feels a need to rescue lost children, much to Polly's dismay. Rose is lost as well, but for the opposite reason: she is the only child of very busy, distant parents who don't spend much time with her at all. Its 1963 in Toronto, when these two meet, and because they both have an interest in ghosts -- well, Rose can see them, so it's not really an interest -- they embark upon a mystery when finding a gravestone with Rose's name in the graveyard behind their houses.

If that sounds convoluted and sort of strange, it's because this book is, well, convoluted and sort of strange. I think Cotter was going for atmospheric, but for me it just came off as creepy and weird. And unnecessary. Perhaps it was just me; this was the last of the Cybils finalists that I read, and I was worn out on fantasy by this point. But, the characters seemed wooden, the parents unnecessarily strict or absent, the story too forced for my taste.

The twist that happens didn't work for me, either.

Which is to say, this was my least favorite. Though, it's probably just me, and there's some kid out there who loves twisty ghost stories with shocking reveals.

February 25, 2015

The Castle Behind Thorns

by Merrie Haskell
First sentence: "Sand woke, curled in the ashes of a great fireplace."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There's death and betrayal and politics, and lots of funny French names, so maybe it's not for the most reluctant of readers. It's in the midde grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sand, short for Alexandre, is the son of the local smithy in a small French duchy. (Well, it's in one of those offshoots just when France was becoming, well, France.) The duchy castle has been in disrepair for longer than Sand's 13 years, and surrounded by thorns. No one has gone to see what could be seen  inside.

Then Sand, who has been arguing with his father about attending university (he doesn't want to), throws a token in Saint Melor's wishing well, and ends up inside the castle. With no clue how he got there or how he will get out.

A brief aside here: we discover things right along with Sand, and while that generally annoys me, in this book it works to great effect. Sand is disoriented and alone, and Haskell captures that perfectly, transferring Sand's anxiety and his slow realization that he's stuck there and no one is coming to get him to the reader. All of which is followed up by his determination to survive and make things work.

During his explorations, Sand finds a body of a dead girl, and straightens her up. And because this place is magical (something which comes on very slowly, and quietly), she wakes up. Suddenly, Sand is not alone, and he and Perrotte -- who happens to be the daughter of the long-dead Count -- have to work together to find their way out of the castle.

I know it sounds boring, but it's not. Haskell is a gifted writer, and she captures so many inner emotions and struggles and makes them not only real but captivating. I loved the friendship that developed between Sand and Perrotte (and that it wasn't a romance!). I loved how they worked together to figure out how to get out of the castle. I loved that Sand's strengths and Perrotte's strengths were different and they found a way to compliment each other.

Yeah, all of this is really introspective for a middle grade fantasy novel, but in Haskell's talented hands, it works well.

More than just well: it works wonderfully.

February 23, 2015

The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra

by Jason Fry
First sentence: "Tycho Hashoone was doing his math homework when the alarms started shrieking."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There's some intense moments, and a lot of off-screen deaths. And the names are pretty challenging to sound out. But, it's a short book that reads quickly, and would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I think 6-8th graders would enjoy it as well.

Tycho is part of one of the great pirating families of the Jupiter alliance. They've been capturing ships for booty for generations, flying the same starship, the Comet, making their name and their living. The captainship is handed down from parent to child, and the current captain, Diocletia, is Tycho's mom. Which means that Tycho, his twin sister Yana, and their older brother, Carlo, are all in competition to be the next captain.

Lest you think that's the focus of the book, it's not. Even though their competition is a huge part. No, the real story is the disappearance of Jovian privateers (as the pirates are now called). When the Hashoones capture a freighter that happens to have an Earth diplomat on it (Jupiter and Earth have been at war for decades), that sets off a chain of events that will involve the Hashoones figuring out the dirty politics behind the disappearances.

On the one hand, this is freaking cool. Pirates! In Space! (or as A pointed out, a book version of Treasure Planet.) And, I like the world building that Fry did. He's come up with some creative ideas for the future, and I liked the way the privateers/pirates balanced politics with business, just on the legal side of outlaw.


The writing was pedestrian, the competition side of the story took up too much time and what I came to consider the "real" story took too long to develop  and was wrapped up too quickly. (Though that last scene was pretty dang awesome.) While I really enjoyed that this was a family business, Fry was juggling too many characters so I felt like I never really got to know any of them. And maybe this is all quibbling -- I mean, will kids really care? -- but it made the book a less-than-stellar read for me.

February 20, 2015

Nuts To You

by Lynne Rae Perkins
First sentence: "One mild day in early November, I took my lunch down to the waterwheel park."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are short chapters, lots of illustrations, and it's pretty basic vocabulary-wise. Which means it's perfect for the younger readers as well as those who struggle. It's in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The book starts out inauspicious enough: the author having lunch on a picnic bench. But then, a squirrel comes up and, after a bit, begins talking to her. He tells her a fantastic story of adventure, of friendship, and of bravery.

Jed the squirrel was minding his own business, really, when he was picked up by a hawk. He manages to escape with some quick thinking (and the ancient squirrel martial art of Hai Tchree), he manages to escape, falling into an unknown part of the forest. Meanwhile his two best friends, TsTs and Chai, have seen Jed's daring escape, and they head out into the forest to find him.

It sounds horribly corny, doesn't it? I've been putting this book off for months just because 1) talking squirrels?? 2) really??? But trust me: it's adorable. The squirrels talk to each other, true, but the only reason they talked to the "author" was because they've learned English over the years. No magic. Promise. Even so, the way Perkins has imagined the forest is charming, believably true to the animals she portrays, and just delightful.

There are a couple of reasons why. First, it's the friendship between Jed, Chai (who's a delightful character in his own right), and TsTs is a wonderful one. They will do just about anything for each other, and they work better together as a team. Second, the footnotes and asides had me cracking up. The voice Perkins chooses to tell this story is part of what makes it so perfect. Third, the illustrations help give the text just the right boost from weird and corny to adorable and fun.

Sure, there are some downsides: the environmental message at the end is a bit tacked on and heavy-handed. And the jokes and asides will probably drive those who dislike intrusive narrators bonkers. But I was completely won over and just wanted to hug the book in the end.