Monday, March 26, 2012

Review of Dear America: Like the Willow Tree

Dear America: Like the Willow Tree
by Lois Lowry
4 Scribbles
Imagine having a birthday and one week later both of your parents are dead. This is what Lydia faces when the Spanish Flu kills her mother, her father, and her baby sister. She and her brother are sent to live with the Shakers, a deeply religious people who believe in a simple life. When Lydia and her brother first arrive at the Shaker village, Lydia is accepting but apprehensive about this new life. She becomes more apprehensive when one of the sisters takes the only memory she has of her mother—the ring gifted to her on her last birthday. Will Lydia learn to live amongst the Shakers, and more importantly, will her angry brother Daniel adapt to the lifestyle and tame his anger over their parents’ death? First let me say that I listened to this book on audio—and I think that the reader, Sara Barnett, has the perfect voice to portray the main character in the story, eleven-year-old, Lydia Pierce. Her voice sounds young and her impressive use of pitch and inflection reveals Lydia’s excitement, enthusiasm, and innocence perfectly. Through Lydia’s eyes, the reader imagines what it would be like to be a Shaker, to live a simple life, but one that is always working towards perfection, towards creating a heaven on Earth, as the Shakers do. I loved the story, but even I must admit that a failing of the book was idealizing the Shaker way. On only one instance does Lydia mention treating a classmate in a mean way, and instances where women gossiped in the laundry was treated more as concerned discussion than what it actually was—gossiping about another—which I’m pretty sure is not the Christian way no matter what sect you are in. Even with this optimistic slant, I enjoyed the story tremendously, it was an easy, entertaining read, with an Epilogue that will surprise the reader.

Review of Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Moon Over Manifest
by Clare Vanderpool
4 Scribbles
A little girl with a transient past is sent to stay with a minister in a small town while her father pursues a railroad job. Sounds like a snoozer, doesn’t it? Think again. This winner of the 2011 Newberry Award is very engaging. On the first day of her arrival, Abilene, the protagonist, discovers a hidden compartment in her bedroom containing a cigar box with old letters and trinkets. Within the box, there is an indication that a spy, a.k.a. "The Rattler," lived in Manifest during WWI, and he (or she) might still be in town. Abilene begins to investigate the spy story, and in the process, meets a mysterious fortune teller who begins to reveal the secrets of Manifest, and maybe even the secrets that her father never told Abilene. The story then begins to be told partly in the present, and partly through flashbacks of Manifest’s past. Readers will see themselves not only in Abilene and her friends, but also in the characters of the past. What kid doesn’t love to investigate? Abilene and her friends poke their noses into very inch of the small town in pursuit of The Rattler, despite being warned to "leave it alone," and in the process have to wiggle out of some tight spots or else get in deep trouble. Abilene’s voice is a highlight in the story. Abilene "rhymes" when she is nervous; rhymes from the period add to the feel of living in that time, and Abilene is laugh-out-loud funny! For instance, when Abilene first sees the fortune teller, she comments that the sign on the door indicates the fortune teller is a "medium" but she feels like that is a bit optimistic—clearly, the woman is at least a size large. Such innocent, humorous word play riddles the book, and lends to the fresh feeling of being young, curious, and invincible. Best of all, by solving the mystery enshrouding Manifest, Abilene gains a new understanding of and connection with her father, and an awareness of what a true home can be.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Review of The Fame Game by Lauren Conrad

The Fame Game
by Lauren Conrad
1 Scribble
Release Date April 3, 2012
What do reality TV Star Madison Parker, aspiring actress Carmen Price, folksy musician Kate Hayes, and TV journalist Gaby Garcia all have in common? They have all been selected to star on the new reality TV series The Fame Game about four starlets climbing the ego-slicked ladder to fame.

There is a reason why Lauren Conrad’s name is the largest thing on the cover—clearly her name, and not the riveting content is what will move this book off the shelves. Readers aware of Conrad’s background as a reality T.V. star on MTV’s The Hills might expect dramatic scenes, over-the-top scandal, or double-crosses as they trod through the chapters, but the focus of the book seems to be a somewhat slow examination of what actually constitutes a bonafide Hollywood star. Chapter titles such as "Hardly Star Treatment," and "People like Us Do Not Wait in Lines," set up the air of superiority felt by main characters Madison and Carmen, while ironically, their own struggles to bag major motion picture roles and leave reality TV reinforce their insecurity. Chapters jump from character to character without apparent structure, creating a hodge-podge of lukewarm, semi-related events that all amount to nothing. The only real conflicts worth noting emerge when Kate’s boyfriend refuses to publically acknowledge her, and when Madison reunites with her ex-con, deadbeat father. With the exception of Kate, the characters are all exasperating stereotypes obsessed with designer name-dropping, exotic foods, and exorbitant price tags. What’s worse, the book ends with no real conclusion, only 300 plus pages of unanswered questions. Undoubtedly Conrad plans to answer these questions her next book of the series, Starstruck, already slated for release in October of this year. For more satisfying reality fare readers should try The Real Real by Emma McLaughlin and Nicole Kraus.

Review of the Nightworld by Jack Blaine

Harper Collins
The Nightworld
by Jack Blaine
4 Scribbles
Release Date 5/1/2012
Nick’s senior year starts looking up the moment stunning Lara Hanover invites him to her summer kickoff party. If all goes as planned, Nick will not be doomed to spend as much time alone as he has since his mother died and his dad went underground to his "off-limits" basement where work on a government project engages him around the clock. Yes, hooking up with Lara might make everything right in Nick’s world. But when the world outside changes and a mysterious storm engulfs the sky, everything turns to night. Danger, panic and chaos reign and suddenly, Nick can no longer see what lies ahead.

Young adults are no strangers to apocalyptic narratives, yet this novel offers a new approach to the genre. Far from being permanently destroyed, there may be salvation for the human race and for the skies above, and Nick may hold it in his hands. Who better than Nick? Nick’s character is old-school gentleman meets teenaged boy. Nick sticks by his best friend, Charlie, even when it means possible alienation from others, he wants to rescue his damsel in distress, Lara, he continues to see the best in others, even after he has proof that the human race is in self-destruct, and oh—he rescues a dog. Throughout the increasingly violent events in the story, Nick manages to maintain his sense of morality and optimism. Hand in hand with Lara, who turns out to be stunning and humble, Nick continues to move stoically forward searching for a place he thinks is safe and trying desperately to figure out his father’s scientific device that may bring light back to the world. The reader will dismiss more convenient plot turns, like sweet old man Gus’s appearance and the gift of Gus’s "bike" because the remainder of the story is true to reality—tough times call for tough choices and measures—and Nick makes those calls the way they should be made time and time again without sacrificing his character. The author might have placed more emphasis on the impact of darkness on the environment and the characters; as the novel stands there is a hint of the darkness, but the tremendous action and repeated encounters with others make it seem less of a "Nightworld" than a "Duskworld." Otherwise, readers of books like Ashfall by Mike Mullin and The Last Survivors Series by Susan Beth Pfeffer, will devour this book.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review of A Monster Calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd (audio version)

A Monster Calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd (audio version)
by Patrick Ness
5 Scribbles—a marvelous tribute to the memory of author Siobhan Dowd
Conor has a dark, shameful secret. It is the kind of secret he cannot share—even with his beloved mother, who is now very weakened by her battle with cancer. But some nights, right after midnight, a Monster appears in the midst of Conor’s room—and the Monster knows Conor’s secret. When the Monster comes walking, will Conor’s secret be revealed?

Conor’s mother is suffering through continuous bouts of chemotherapy, and Conor must take care of himself at home and at school—where the truth about his mother has alienated him from other students. If Conor is anything, it’s tough and stoic, which is why it isn’t hard to believe that when the Monster first appears to Conor, he isn’t frightened at all—in fact, the Monster, as gnarly, as sinister, as powerful as it is, doesn’t encounter Conor’s fear, but his defiance. Readers can easily empathize with Conor. Faced with his mother’s death, there isn’t much else that can scare him, so—bring it. And the monster does bring it, but not through the power of his huge, earth-encrusted fists, or his thick, ropey calves, or his booming, angry voice. No, the Monster brings the fear little by little, through stories that reveal truth. Little, tricky, unfair, ironic truths that tickle the back of Conor’s thoughts and beliefs, that threaten to challenge his idea of what is fair, stories that ultimately bring Conor to the brink of despair.

There is much to admire in this story: the occasional humorous dialogue that reminds the reader how normal and young Conor is and makes the reader laugh when they really want to sob, Conor’s rage and need to feel an outward pain as he accepts the abuse of bullies, the weight of Conor’s grief and fear of loss, the imagery of the Monster. Ness takes the archetype of the Green Man and weaves it into the story so naturally that one can see the symbols of life, nature, personal growth, and rebirth at every stage without breaking the magical tension of the story. The tale is a masterpiece, a merging of myth with present reality, with all of our human idiosyncrasies, our fears and weaknesses. Ness has created a true horror story that will haunt all who read it for years to come, and isn’t that what a truly fantastic "Monster" story does?

Jason Isaacs, the narrator of the story, does a phenomenal job with voice; he quickly changes from the ferocious Monster to the natural, boyish and sarcastic tone of Conor with ease. His female voice is also well done and credible with only a few instances where the transition is rocky. Particularly impressive was Isaacs vocal presentation of Conor’s dad, a former Brit, now ex-pat American whose accent and word choices have gone awry. I would most certainly choose a novel read by Issacs again.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Review of Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta

Froi of the Exiles (Book Two of The Lumatere Chronicles)
By Melina Marchetta
2 Scribbles
Release date March 16, 2012
After reading the first book of The Lumatere Chronicles, I was enchanted by Marchetta’s sophisticated writing, and hoped that this tale was (and I quote) "…only one installment of a much, much longer story." As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for! Book two of The Chronicles centers on the mission of rogue slave, Froi, who Isaboe saved from slave-traders. Froi, now educated and properly trained as a fighter, is entrusted with the task of assassinating the neighboring king of Charyn in order to protect the newly re-assembled Lumaterian kingdom. And while Froi is most certainly the main protagonist of the saga, Marchetta interweaves several sub-plots into the tale. While these subplots are inter-connected, so many stories taking place in the novel make a few things unfortunately unavoidable. It takes a keen reader, or one with a notebook handy, to keep up with the numerous characters in the novel. Certainly the characters are used to help augment the storyline—a great amount of backstory is provided via character dialogue which can become tedious at times—but perhaps a smaller cast, focusing more on the conflict in Charyn would be best to assist the reader in becoming more invested in the characters and more engaged in the storyline. The goings-on of Lumatere, which appear in alternating chapters, might have been better as a separate book or created as a part two in this installment. As it stands, the alternating chapters and enormous cast make for many distractions. One of the things Marchetta does well is irony, and she does use this irony throughout—there are deceptions revealed, clever switches, and misunderstandings that help to draw flagging readers back in—although I would argue that more astute readers will be able to predict Froi’s origins very early on in the book. And while most YA readers who enjoyed Finnikin of the Rock will be amped to see this installment, I would argue that much of the content of this book is geared to a more adult audience. I just hope that book three (which is clearly hinted at in the ending) will be focused on the future of the Lumatere and its neighboring kingdoms and not so focused on the past.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Little, Brown Books
for Young Readers
Daughter of Smoke and BoneBy Laini Taylor
5+ Scribbles
Spunky and independent seventeen-year-old Karou has always been different from other teenagers. She has an extraordinary gift for drawing, she wears a string of wishes around her neck, she has blue hair, and she attends a prestigious art school in Prague. She lives alone and has no parents that she knows of; her only family consists of a small group of Chimaera—magical, beautiful creatures—that raised her in an enchanted workshop beyond a hidden portal, only to later nudge her into the human world. Karou knows something is missing in her life, but she accepts that there may never be answers to her questions, no solution to the loneliness that sometimes threatens to engulf her. And then one day she meets the handsome and fierce Akiva, and suddenly her world is helter skelter. Taylor paints with words the way master artists paint with brushes. Her descriptions are rich, textured, and raw, allowing the reader to travel through portals with the characters and to see through the character’s eyes. The plot has the flavor of an appetizer-sized portion of Romeo & Juliet with just a sprinkling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is impossible to reach the end of one chapter and not have an overwhelming desire to turn to the next. Readers become emotionally invested in Karou. They will identify with her when she realizes for the first time that family is not perfect, and that we all must eventually face the world alone. They will laugh with Karou and her best friend Zuzanna as they groan over life’s challenges, and they will struggle with Karou to fully understand temptation, forgiveness and redemption. All of these lessons are interwoven into the tapestry of the story seamlessly without ever being in the least didactic, or simplistic or distracting. Taylor has taken the canvas of a novel and painted a lovely and matchless masterpiece. There is a reason that this novel has been voted one of the Top Ten Best Books of 2012—a unique and refreshing tale like this hasn’t been told since C.S. Lewis. If I had a bruxis I’d wish that the next book was already waiting for me on my shelf—but alas, I love eating too much to part with my teeth.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shelf Awareness

Subscribe to Shelf Awareness and enter to win a free book!
I'm a new member to Shelf Awareness, but I've already received some great galleys and some wonderful advice on new books to read. You should check it out. Shelf Awareness: Enlightenment for Readers is a FREE emailed newsletter with reviews on the 25 best books publishing each week along with author interviews, book excerpts, giveaways and more. Right now they’re running a contest for new subscribers. Check out the button on their our website to sign up for the new publication and to be entered for a chance to win a great book! (Even though this giveaway is not a YA title.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review of Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor the Overlander (Book One of the Underland Chronicles)
By Suzanne Collins
4 Scribbles
In all the frenzy surrounding the long-anticipated release of Suzanne Collins' masterpiece, The Hunter Games in movie form, I decided to catch up on some of Collins’ other works. Students have been recommending the Underland Chronicles to me for years, Collins’ earlier series; and so I finally picked up book one, and I was not disappointed!

After his father disappears, Gregor is the man of his house despite his own pain; and, he takes the job seriously. That’s why when Gregor’s baby sister, Boots, falls down a mysterious vent in their New York City apartment, Gregor jumps in to rescue her. He is shocked to find that he and his sister have entered a portal to the Underland—a place where bats bond with humans, spiders go on quests, cockroaches talk, and rats are the super-sized kind. Oh, and did I mention? These critters all talk! Even though the environment is completely foreign, Collins’ descriptions bring the Underworld and its creatures to life. The tale is a classic quest; Gregor’s coming has been foretold to the human population of the Underworld, a strange, noble and pale people who are unaccustomed to visitors. These people are on the brink of a great war with the vicious, bloodthirsty rats. Like most of us would, Gregor has insecurities about being only eleven and being expected to embark on a journey into the unknown, but he harnesses his fear and agrees to accompany the humans of the Underworld in the hopes of perhaps finding his father and returning back to his mother in New York. His character is heroic, tender, and very protective of his sister Boots--readers will love him. And, it's hard not to adore Boots, Gregor's unexptected companion who provides humor and inspiration for the questors. The reader roots for Gregor and his entourage as the group faces challenge after challenge, all leading up to the moment when Gregor must face his worst fear—and the possibility that he may not survive the quest alive. The concluding twist is totally unexpected, and the teaser at the end will make younger readers anxious to read book two in the series, The Prophecy of Bane.