Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review of Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza

Katherin Tegen Books
Mila 2.0
by Debra Driza
4 Scribbles

Mila knows the world doesn’t stop turning even if it seems like it should.  Every day at her new school is a trial as she tries to fit in while at the same time mourning the recent loss of her father who died in a tragic fire back in Pennsylvania. Mila’s new friends don’t understand what she’s feeling; so when Hunter enrolls in her school, Mila is glad to find someone with a listening, sympathetic ear—finally, she feels like she may have a chance for a normal future. Yet when a freak car accident reveals an artificial limb Mila didn’t know she had, Mila’s soon discovers that her arm isn’t all that’s strange about her.

Mila’s story is action-packed adventure from the first page to the tantalizing last. However, the action isn’t the only thing that makes the story great. Driza weaves an intricate web of intrigue that still includes solid characters and rich relationships. For instance, Mila’s character is highly relatable. She struggles with the same issues many teen girls face—a need to feel liked, a sense of insecurity, the sting of competitiveness, and the pain of betrayal. She loves her mother, Nicole, and longs for the relationship she knew they once had before her father’s death. In fact, when Mila and her mother, Nicole have to run, the strong relationship that develops between them is refreshing. She is a teen who loves her parents and values their support. Too often novels pit teens against their parents and ignore healthy parent-teen connections. In the style of novels such as The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson, Driza creates a character who is less that human yet somehow encapsulates the best of humanity. Unlike Fox, however, Mila’s story focuses less on what constitutes a soul and more on what happens when artificial intelligence combines with biological material and becomes something…more. In fact, Mila’s character is the perfect balance of morality, strength, courage and love. Despite her inhumanity, she is not the perfect weapon she was created to be; she is somehow better than human. And she can still love, which is clearly evidenced when she meets Hunter, and the strength of her very human emotions help to create sparks between them. This novel is a thrilling tale of espionage that will appeal to both male and female readers and rival the fast-paced spy-games on the big screens—Jason Bourne step aside—Mila is here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review of Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Thirteenth Child (Book One: Frontier Magic)
by Patricia C. Wrede
3 Scribbles

This highly original fantasy re-imagines the evolution of the United States. In this world, thirteenth children like Eff are destined to bring only bad things to their communities and are persecuted, whereas seventh sons of seventh sons, like Eff’s twin Lan, are revered. Why? Magic is critical to the survival of the pioneers out west and the future of America, and magic is directly tied to birth order. So when Eff’s family moves to the frontier, she is relieved to have a fresh beginning, but for how long?

The best part of this tale is the re-imagining of the frontier America...and it’s also the worst part of the tale.  I enjoyed seeing how Wrede’s frontier included magical creatures like steam dragons and mammoth—a very cool twist on American history. I found it incredibly clever that magic was used to protect settlers while they developed the land for farming. I even enjoyed the blending of actual American history with fictional occurrences; for instance, the alteration of the names of American Presidents after Thomas Jefferson was comical.  Yet, despite this awesome alternative American history, I felt as if it might have been better if Eff’s world was another country not unlike America, but on a completely different planet. Why? I know I’m not the only reviewer to mention this, but there were no Native Americans at all in the story. None. It seems absolutely morally irresponsible to exclude a major part of the American population, even if it is a re-imagining. If I were a Native American reading this novel, I’m pretty sure I would take offense to being left out.  If I were an African American person, I’m not sure I’d like reading this novel and not knowing why the historical issue of slavery is not addressed. It is as if every “uncomfortable” issue in America’s history is simply ignored, and not only does that bother me, but it takes away from the richness of the plot. It’s as if Wrede replaces diverse peoples with three diverse magical theories, Aphrikan (African) Avrupan (European), and Hijero-Cathayan (Asian/Hispanic).  Is it too much to hope that future novels in the series might remedy this problem?

The story has also been criticized for its abundance of characters, but I didn’t feel the characters were too many or too few. Those characters critical to the story were very well-developed, like Eff, Lan, William, father, and Eff’s bossy sister, Rini. Readers from large families or those who know large families understand that when so many children are born, there is a feeling of disconnect between the younger and older children. This feeling of distance is relayed to the reader through a brief mentioning of the older children who have moved on with their lives, without delving into their persons. I really enjoyed the characters of Miss Ochiba and “Wash” the traveling magician. What I really didn’t like was that Miss Ochiba’s past wasn’t touched upon overmuch, and she is written out of the story just when the reader is getting to enjoy her. There is clearly a connection between Miss Ochiba and Wash, and this is hinted at but never explained. Hopefully, this connection will be expounded upon in the second book in the series and Miss Ochiba will make a comeback. Although I imagine it is too much to hope the author will discuss their history in connection with slavery—since slavery is a horrible yet undeniable fact of American history.

Some have also said that this novel does not have a plot. I disagree. The plot is the coming-of-age of a frontier magician girl. What the story lacks is an abundance of conflict, and the opportunities for conflict are overlooked. Readers thrive on conflict, of course, and conflict builds interest in the story. For instance, at the onset of the novel it is mentioned that Eff’s uncle advised she be “done away with.” The police are called when she is five years old to take her to prison. The doing away with (murder) of thirteenth children is touched upon but not labored over. I would have liked to have seen this savage practice illuminated more.  Is this killing or imprisoning of “Thirteens” a regularity? What does this say about the government? The citizenry? Instead of expounding on the issue, the author moves past it with little fanfare. What? Glaze over the murder of innocents? Also, the story takes place over an unusually long span, from the time Eff is 4-ish until she is 18, and many years are sort of skipped past with little discussion of Eff’s maturity or growth. At one point she spends an entire year in bed with rheumatic fever! Granted, such illnesses were a common issue at this time, but her illness stalls the story. Additionally, Eff is one of the few characters in a fictional work I have read about who has no friends to speak of (unless that fact is critical to the conflict). What sorts of conflicts could have arisen between classmates and friends in her new frontier home? Thus, the novel at times reads like chapter after chapter of back-story leading up to what eventually comes during the last few chapters—an actual problem to be resolved.

All of these issues combined lead to my 3 Scribble rating. However, I must say that I will be reading the next two novels in time, since I would like to see how the author takes the story and perhaps remedies some of the issues that exist here.  Readers of Westerns and historical fiction will enjoy this work. I’ve heard it said that it’s a nice blend of Harry Potter meets Laura Ingalls Wilder; I wouldn’t go to those extremes, but the flavor of both is certainly there.  Great for upper elementary and middle school readers alike!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Review of Ungifted by Gordon Korman

HarperCollins Publishers
by Gordon Korman
3 Scribbles

Donovan loves a good practical joke, especially at school; school is simply boring without mixing it up once in a while. But when Donovan accidentally-on-purpose destroys the school gym, he must go underground to protect his identity from the school’s superintendent, Dr. Schultz.  Laughter and hijinks ensue.

There is a lot to love in this fast-moving adventure, if the reader can get past the stereotypes. Korman portrays the kids at the gifted academy who hide Donovan as nothing short of cyborgs. They have the IQs (listed at the onset of every chapter) of quantum physicists but the social skills of a calculator. Sure, some gifted students may be a bit socially awkward, and some have concrete disabilities that challenge them in social settings, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Real gifted kids are just as quirky and adventuresome as “ungifted” kids. In fact, I think Chloe was the only gifted character who seemed realistic since she longs to be “un-isolated” from other, “un-gifted” students.

I did enjoy the plot turns. There were just enough to keep the reader guessing without making the story difficult to follow. It was fun to see how Donovan manages to dodge Dr. Schultz, the superintendent, time and time again, and to see the ironic reason behind the dog, Beatrice’s depression. I also liked the inclusion of Donovan’s older sister, Katie, in the story. She’s living with her family (and Donovan) while her husband fights in Afghanistan, and she is pregnant. Readers may sometimes forget that soldiers are still being deployed regularly and are still stationed abroad. Our country is at peace, but this is not peace-time.  I found it refreshing that the author so naturally incorporates this conflict into the plot and makes readers care—without hitting them over the head with it. I also like the key role Katie plays in the story.

I did feel one point was sort of ignored in the story. Donovan is notorious for dishonesty and theft—part of his charm. However, even though he grows and matures, I’m not sure the thievery is adequately resolved.  For example, what happens with the floor polisher? Did I miss it when this loose end was tied up? That being said, the book is an easy, fun and accessible read that many older elementary and middle school students will enjoy—so long as they don’t get too hung up on the stereotypes.  For an even more hilarious read by Gordon Korman, I’d recommend Schooled.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review of Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Katherine Tegen Books
by Veronica Roth
1 Scribble

I must preface this negative review with the disclaimer that I was blown away when I read Divergent, the first in the Divergent trilogy.  Insurgent, the second novel in the Divergent trilogy, was pleasing, although I was disappointed that Tris cried a bit too much and too easily for such a tough gal. That being said, I am sorely disappointed with this third novel in the series. As I surmised after reading book two, could it be that editors and publishers are rushing Ms. Roth to publish, thus damaging her ability to produce work equal to or better than Divergent?
My first complaint is that characterization is vastly different in this installment. First off, there seem to be many, many characters, most of them minor, and most of them I could care less about. I started to lose track of them all and just shrugged it off, because even halfway through plodding along, I was not emotionally invested in any of them. Secondly, I was a little jolted by the dual-narration. Changing perspectives is a great way to enrich a novel and reveal more about characters in the story, but alternating points of view between Tris and Four simply didn’t work for me. Yes, I learned more about Four, but what I learned was disheartening. It seems Four isn’t the self-assured, tough-guy-who-masks his weaknesses with a razor-sharp edge. He’s actually sort of a dark, brooding weenie. Before he didn’t trust anyone, except Tris, and now it seems that he doesn’t trust Tris, the girl he supposedly loves more than life itself. Instead, he trusts others, as evidenced by the fact that he’s quick to lie to Tris and join an uprising without her knowledge.  Sorry, but the Four I know would never do this. Tris is different in this novel too. It’s like she is the most self-righteous harpy I’ve ever read, and then mid-stride she totally loses her moral compass and decides murder is okay if the reason is good enough. Ends justify the means? What?  In fact, despite all the face-smashery between Tris and Four, the two don’t even seem to really like each other much even though they are in love. Do they love each other out of habit?
The themes in the novel are all worthy, but not at all subtle. Of course, the violation of civil rights via genetic engineering is blaring, the prejudice against genetically damaged individuals is there, the nature-versus-nurture aspect is touched upon and of course everyone is living in a sad, fishbowl of a society with virtually no freedoms. Did I hit every theme on the dystopian blueprint? If I missed mentioning one, it’s in the novel—no worries. And while I appreciate this attempt at getting the reader to contemplate societies’ ills, the themes don’t creep into the consciousness via story rather they jump up and smack the reader full on in the forehead and scream “pay attention!”
I’m not going to delve into plot a great deal. The bottom line is that even though the big teaser at the end of book two is illuminated and an explanation given in this installment, the reader may not care a whole lot. The story and action is just all over the place. I’m not even sure if I’d call that subplottting—I sort of dragged myself kicking and screaming to the book each night the week it came out. I have waited this long to write my review, because the only thing more painful than reading the book is writing this review.  I know there were “subplots” but I don’t remember them all—in fact, I tried to forget them.
This brings me to the ending. At first blush, I felt the human sacrifice (and I won’t say more, even though I’m guessing the grand finale ending is out there already) that took place at the end was refreshing—go Roth! Take risks; be true to what might really happen; shock the reader. But then I realized the plan to save Chicago is lame and the results even worse.  The human sacrifice gets completely cancelled out by the lameness of the plan, and the fact that later, Four is able to change the minds of the two worst villains in literature, Evelyn and Marcus, with a bit of fluffy rhetoric. In light of that monumental and highly unforgiveable misrepresentation of the most evil characters in dystopian literature—why was the sacrifice made? Why was the series ever written?
My only hope is that before the movie comes out, heavy, vicious editing takes place. Perhaps even a reimagining of the original.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Review of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

St. Martin's Griffin

Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
5 Scribbles
Have you ever heard someone trash the idea of young love? What’s great about this novel is that it takes the world’s cynical outlook on young love and turns it on its head.  
Park has his own seat on the bus to school, and he likes it that way. But then one day Eleanor steps onto the bus. Eleanor is clearly out of her mind—she’s dressed in men’s clothing, has fishing tackle in her hair and men’s ties around her wrists, and Park knows instantly she’s a target. In a rare show of mercy, he gives up his solo seat before the morons in the back of the bus can maul Eleanor. Soon he realizes that Eleanor is much more than her clothing choices. She’s interesting, strangely beautiful despite her odd dress, and they have a lot in common.  It isn’t long before Park falls in love. What he doesn’t know is that Eleanor is from “the other side of the tracks.” She doesn’t have the resources or home life that Park has; in fact, her life is a tragedy all its own, and what Park doesn’t know is that he’s quickly becoming Eleanor’s only lifeline.

Eleanor and Park’s story is set in the 1980s, an important factor for a few reasons. First, some of the music Park loves may be strange to those readers who aren’t accustomed to some of the alternative and punk bands that were the rage in the 1980s. No worries, readers will get a musical education as they read. Another factor that I really enjoyed was the lack of cell phones or any social media. Of course, I grew up in this time, so I remember what it was like to be in some ways isolated from people, but in other ways be closer to friends because contact was made in person or via land lines.  Readers may find this odd, but they will also see how this lack of technology brings Park and Eleanor closer, and helps to create the tragedy their love will eventually endure.  And the characters! The characters in this novel are real! They step off the pages and into your gym class, onto your street, and into the house next door. Park is the cool, good-looking, quirky guy and Eleanor is mature beyond her years, both in body and mind. The two connect on a powerful level, and the reader will root for their relationship from page one. Park’s parents are amazing—with a love story all their own. The villains are despicable.  Eleanor’s mother is a villain because she has allowed herself to become a victim and sacrificed her children in the process. Richie is the drunk, lecherous stepfather we all love to hate, and the jerks at school are the typical high school “in” click. What isn’t typical is the strength of the relationship that develops between Park and Eleanor, and their individual story. Just because an individual may be young, doesn’t mean that they have the inability to feel true, strong, and powerful love. What is the real tragedy in young love is when circumstances, not immaturity, keep young lovers apart.  Eleanor and Park is a tragedy that Shakespeare would envy, but it is also an elevation of love and commitment between two teens with limited choices but strength of character. It’s a marvelous, riveting novel with amazing conflict, plot development and characterization. I loved every edgy word of it, especially the amazing, realistic, and inspiring last three words.    

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review of The False Princess by Eilis O'Neal

Egmont USA
The False Princess
by Eilis O'Neal
5 Scribbles

Nalia is the princess of Thorvaldor, trained in everything a princess must know to be a successful future queen; she has never known life outside of Thorvaldor’s walls. But, shortly after her sixteenth birthday, she is told that her life is a lie. Her parents are not her parents, and she is not the princess—she was chosen to stand in for the real princess so that a prophecy may be avoided. It seems an oracle had predicted that the real princess would die in her fifteenth year, and now that Nalia is sixteen, it is safe to bring the real princess home to the palace. In the course of one day Nalia loses everything she has ever known, including her name. Now she is Sinda Azaway, and she is sent to live with her aunt in Treb, a poor village in the countryside.  How will she ever adjust to this new life?
What appears on the surface to be a simple riches to rags story is so much more! Readers are connected to Sinda’s plight right away. We want her to succeed in her new world, and like Sinda, we only feel a little anger at the crown for betraying her. She is our friend; a kind girl who deserves some measure of happiness in the world, especially since she has been mistreated so badly by those who should have loved her. The real surprise in the story is when Sinda discovers she has magic, and in order to control it, she must leave Treb and return to the city to seek training. Once there, she reunites with a lost friend and discovers that things are not as they seem in the palace. There is still an imposter in the royal circle, and only Sinda can stop the conspiracy to overthrow the crown. Thus, Sinda must dig deep and find her spine, for it seems only she can save the kingdom. The author does an amazing job at plotting—weaving in elements from earlier in the story that seem irrelevant, but later are critical to Sinda’s success. Secondary characters are very well drawn, and the villains are easy to loathe. Although this seems to be a stand-alone novel, it could easily grow into a series. In fact, a series could emerge from a secondary character alone. Another great factor is the novel's unpredictability. At first blush the reader may think they are engaged in a sort of fairy tale, but it doesn’t take long to see that this novel is a tightly crafted mystery filled with intrigue and excitement around every corner. It’s got it all: magic, sword fights, mystery, and even a little romance.  It’s one of those books that will make you late for…well anything…because it’s impossible to put it down.  Readers who enjoy works like Princess Academy by Shannon Hale and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers will find much to love in this book!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review of This Wicked Game by Michelle Zink

This Wicked Game
by Michelle Zink
4 Scribbles
Dial Books/Penguin Group

Claire Kincaid is a direct descendent of the notorious New Orleans voodoo queen, Marie Laveau--so you would think that she'd be a follower of voodoo like her parents. The truth is, even though she works in their shop, she has no real interest in the craft. She's quite different from the other teens, or "firstborns" in the historically powerful New Orleans "Guild" or voodoo families. Unlike the other firstborns, she doesn't work on spells or practice the "recipes" inhereted by her family; in fact, she's pretty normal. However, one day while working in the shop, strangers arrive asking for ingredients known to be used in very dark spells. Claire becomes suspicious and soon discovers a plot to destroy the Guild, and she may be the only one who can stop it.

The setting of the novel adds to it's dark, mysterious flavor; those who've heard of New Orleans know about the city's rich history and magical voodoo roots. Zink merges this history with the present day, creating a novel that is naturally filled with tension and intrigue. Adding to the tension is Claire's secretive relationship with Alex, one she keeps secret because she doesn't think his family will accept her--after all, she's virtually rejected her heritage. Claire simply doesn't believe she has any real talent or the power needed for the craft. Yet, when the Guild elders turn their heads after Claire's warning about the sinister strangers who visit the shop, she feels the need to take a stand. It's a new day in New Orleans, and clearly the firstborns are going to have to protect their own. Teens will connect to Claire as she seeks to find a bond with the other teen Guild members, always before so foriegn to her. Who hasn't felt like the black sheep at one point or another? And as the tension mounts and the deadly plot to destroy the Guild is uncovered by the firstborns, Claire's insecurity comes to a head. As the last descendent of Marie Laveau, she may be the only one with the necessary resources to save them all--but can she overcome her doubts? Fans of paranormal mysteries will enjoy this highly accessible work, and those who aren't big fans of historical fiction won't be put off by the reference to Marie Laveau, since the novel is set in the present. I'm hard pressed to find a read alike--perhaps the closest offering might be Garcia & Stohl's The Caster Chronicles.