Friday, December 20, 2013

2014 Everything YA Reading Challenge

Who could resist?  Keep an eye here, where I'll keep track of all my YA reading for 2014.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

busy standing still

Perfect by Rachel Joyce
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Any writer who can write a sentence like "If Byron ever tried to hug [his father], and sometimes he wished he could, the embrace ran away at the last minute and became a handshake," as though it just flowed off her pen in the first 50 pages of a book sets up high expectations in her readers.  Not only is this a beautiful sentence to read, but it also tells us everything we need to know about Byron's relationship with his father.

Joyce's language does not disappoint throughout the book, but the pacing does.  There's a lot of tension in this book, which is interesting because it doesn't feel like a lot actually happens.  Most of the energy seems to come from the collective inability of all the characters to get beyond their own anxieties and actually fix the situations in which they find themselves.  And that's just not something I have any patience for, either in print, or in real life.

FCC Disclaimer: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

why do we do the things we do?

Portrait by Christina Ann Gordan
Rating: 2-1/2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: There are lots of good things about this book.  The main character, Sarah, is incredibly well drawn.  Anybody who has ever been in a similar situation of people are being mean for no apparent reason will understand exactly how she feels, and Gordan captures it very well (I expect the same is true for the abuse situation). Gordan also gives us several excellent twists toward the end of the story, making it well worth the read.

Unfortunately, there are also some serious flaws, the biggest of which was that I was never able to figure out the motivation of Sarah's employers.  Is there such a huge stigma against single mothers in Australia that would explain how mean they were to Sarah?  That seems to be what Gordan suggests throughout the book.  Or perhaps we're meant to understand that there's something fishy going on with the new management?  I kept getting the feeling that there was supposed to be more.  I thought there would be some revelation of bribery or kick-backs or something, but the answer seems to have been simply that all the people who worked there (with one exception) were just nasty people who enjoyed making Sarah's life miserable.  The motivation of every character doesn't have to be crystal clear, but the treatment Sarah receives at the hands of her employers and "colleagues" forms a large part of the story, and not being able to understand why they were acting as they were was very frustrating.

FCC Disclaimer: I received this e-book free from the author in exchange for this review.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

what makes you special?

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy
Review: This book is a wonderful mix of the fantastic and the mundane.  It's an ordinary world, but some people have "peculiarities" - invisibility, the ability to levitate, or create and control a ball of fire, and the like.

Although the premise of ordinary-kid-finds-out-he-has-extraordinary-powers is a bit worn-out these days, Riggs manages to turn it into something new.  I don't know whether it's the somewhat-disturbing photos that are sprinkled through the book that keep it grounded, or the fact that Jacob's "peculiarity" doesn't seem all that phenomenal, but whatever it is, it makes this book read more like fiction than fantasy.  I'll take either, and don't mean to make a judgment-call about fiction over fantasy here.  I only mean to say that Riggs has a very deft touch as a writer.

Unfortunately, his touch his not so deft when it comes to explaining the idea of a "loop".  The idea is that the "peculiarity" exhibited by some people is that they can create a loop of time that continuously resets itself as long as its creator can maintain control over it.  I get that, and I can even wrap my head around the seeming-inconsistency that, although the people outside the loop are completely unaware of it, what happens to people inside the loop is permanent (everyone inside the loop remembers everything, if someone dies, they stay dead, even after the loop resets, etc.).  What I couldn't make square was that people from both inside and outside the loop can enter and leave at will, as long as they know where the entrance is, without there being any impact on the loop itself.  There are going to be more books about the peculiar children, so perhaps this will be explained, or perhaps I just need to take it on faith, but as it stands it detracted from an otherwise very enjoyable, and subtle, story.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

what if...?

Fallout by Todd Strasser
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had not been peacefully resolved?  What if the Soviets had detonated nuclear bombs over Long Island?  And what if your family was the only one with a bomb shelter?  This is the premise of Todd Strasser's book.

But this is not a philosophical treatise.  We aren't asked actually asked "what would you do if...".  Rather, we are presented with the situation as it is, and through Strasser's very vivid writing, asked to put ourselves in the shelter and experience it through Scott's eyes.

Neither is this a political treatise.  Strasser keeps the focus so tight on Scott, his first-person narrator, that we can't even quite tell what's going on politically or militarily.  We only know tensions are rising on the world stage.  It's a very realistic portrayal of how the world looked to a 12 year old in 1962, but the technique has it's pitfalls as well, the biggest one being that I am not 12 years old and would have liked a bit more insight into what was going on in the wider world.

Although this lack of information bothered me while I was reading the book, looking back, it seems almost a nitpicky complaint about a book that is so strong and readable.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

the comet that disappointed

Night of the Comet by George Bishop
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I enjoyed George Bishop's first novel, Letter to My Daughter and was excited to read this book, his second.  I was not disappointed.  Bishop explores similar themes in this book, as his narrator looks back on his childhood and the lives of his parents.

Alan Broussard, Jr. looks back on his freshman year of high school, when he fell in love for the first time, his father was his science teacher, his parents' marriage fell apart and came back together, and the comet Kohoutek didn't quite show up.  Bishop is adept at bringing his characters to life and managing all of the threads of his narrative.  The story isn't complicated or startling, but it's believable and satisfying.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

play ball!

Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season by Jonathan Eig
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: American history/biography
Review: The title of this book is wonderfully accurate.  It really is the story of the entire season, and not just the baseball parts (although baseball fans won't be disappointed in the description of plays and pitches).  But it is much more than a play-by-play of every game the Dodgers played in 1947; Eig paints a picture of the entire season and how it resonated throughout the country.

Eig's writing is so vivid, you can feel the emotion as Jackie walks into the clubhouse for the first time, as he takes the plate for the first time, as he faces both cruelty and kindness in cities and ballparks across the Major Leagues.  He gives us profiles of people who were affected by Robinson's barrier-breaking, including author Robert B. Parker, civil rights leader Malcolm X, and future governor of Virginia Douglas Wilder. Although some of these profiles go on a bit too long, they contribute a lot to the sense of change that was in atmosphere in 1947.

Eig doesn't exactly soft-pedal the negative reactions from both within and without baseball that arose as a result of integration, but in some ways, he down-plays it a little bit.  Some of Jackie's fellow Dodgers were opposed on principle to playing with a black man, but when he joined the team, they realized he was an ok guy and that integration probably wouldn't actually bring about the end of civilization as we know it.  Somehow I don't think it was that easy.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Mission: Disappointing (but only a little)

His Majesty's Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: As you can see from my reviews of Winston Churchill's Secretary and Princess Elizabeth's Spy, I predicted that the second Maggie Hope mystery would be better than the first, and I was duly rewarded.  I therefore had high hopes for this third installment, but unfortunately, Maggie's mission to Berlin didn't exactly live up to its promise.  

Now with the elite Special Operations Executive, Maggie continues her somewhat maverick approach to acts of derring-do on behalf of His Majesty with a two-pronged mission in Berlin. Unfortunately, most of the people she encounters during her exploits there fail to come alive on the page.  Add to that less-than-convincing mission details and some entirely-too-coincidental meet-ups, and this adventure just doesn't measure up.  But MacNeal has already proven that she has what it takes in this genre, so I'll continue to hope for good things in future Maggie Hope adventures.

Two additional notes: First, this book shouldn't really be called a mystery, since there is no mystery to be solved.  Second, MacNeal shouldn't feel the need to rip off scenes from tv shows, although I'm sure it was entirely an unconscious thing on her part.  She chose one of my favorite scenes from an excellent show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but I was still very disappointed.  Her writing is strong enough without resorting to copying, even from the greats.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

a little too spare

Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Although both plot and characters are written with very little embellishment, Kilanko is a very effective storyteller.  However, there are some puzzling gaps in her narrative.  She makes sure we know that it is a big deal that Morayo, the main character, must go far from home, to a different state on the other side of the Niger River, for the training for her National Youth Service Corps year.  The distance heightens the element of surprise when she meets Kachi, her teenage beau, at the training site.  After only a few pages, though, Morayo informs Kachi that she has been transformed to serve her year much closer to home.  As a plot device to remind her readers about Morayo's relationship with Kachi, this is all well and good, but as part of an actual narrative it leaves something to be desired.  For the most part, omission of such details doesn't detract from the overall sense of the story, but I found each omission distracting as I had to flip back through the pages to see if I actually had missed something.  Finding that I hadn't, each time I could only wonder why Kilanko chose not to add the very few lines that would have provided the missing details.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.