Sophronia Is At It Again

Cover of Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail CarrigerWaistcoats & Weaponry: Finishing School Book the Third by Gail Carriger. New York, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.

Sophronia has returned to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. This year’s syllabus includes dancing as well as the fine art of defending oneself with a bladed fan. However their class attendance is interrupted when she and her best friend, Dimity, take over a train to help Sidheag, Lady Kingair, to deal with a family crisis with her werewolf pack back in Scotland. Of course there will be encounters with Picklemen and flywaymen. And Sophronia finally must untangle her feelings about her favorite sootie, Soap.

This installment in the Finish School series has more action and a stronger plot than book 2. Sophronia is really starting to come into her own. She’s a quick-thinking, brave, intelligent heroine and already a skilled intelligencer. But she is still learning and trying to figure out where her loyalties lie. Fans of the previous volumes will find much to enjoy in Book 3. But while readers could enjoy and appreciate the individual story arc of this book, I would recommend starting with Etiquette & Espionage to better understand the background and the overall conflict with the Picklemen.

I am definitely enjoying the series and look forward to the next installment. On a side note, I really want a Bumbersnoot of my own and wouldn’t mind one of those fans, either.

I received free access to a digital advanced copy of the book through Netgalley in return for an honest review.

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Questions of Faith and Forgiveness

Cover of Rumble by Ellen HopkinsRumble by Ellen Hopkins. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014.

Matthew Turner doesn’t believe in anything. Not family – his is falling apart around him in the aftermath of his younger brother’s suicide. Not God, because if there was a beneficent, all powerful creator, his brother would still be alive. And certainly not religion. After all, those who bullied his brother for being gay until he killed himself justified their cruelty in the name of religion. As he struggles to continue with his life, the one thing he can rely on is his relationship with his girlfriend. She urges forgiveness. But how an Matt forgive others when he can’t even begin to forgive himself? When Hayden seems to start drifting further away, choosing her faith over their relationship, Matt panics. He’s lost everything else. He can’t bear to lose her, too.

In Rumble, Ellen Hopkins explores the role of faith in people’s lives. This book tackles the difficult idea of morality versus religious faith. Matt, an atheist, is convinced that belief is not necessary to be a good person, and that religion is often used to give a veneer of respectability to evil actions. How can you call yourself good if in the name of your religion you torment a young teen to the point of suicide? Not that Matt’s behavior is without fault. He is quick to assign blame and lash out at former friends and family members alike.

Hopkins offers no easy answers, just a window on to the struggles of a teen-age boy trying to cope with tragedy in a world where his support systems seem to be crumbling around him. A series of personal and family crises force him to begin to face his loss and accept love and support in places where had been overlooking it.

That said, the final crisis seems just a bit too much, as if Hopkins decided the story needed a major, dramatic climax before the resolution could be complete, a crisis to set the stage for an epiphany that causes Matt to doubt his complete lack of belief. For me that cheapened his hard-fought steps toward healing, while sending the message that he can’t heal properly without that bit of belief. And once he accepts that, everything can come to a swift, neat conclusion.

But that is a personal quibble with an otherwise good book. Hopkins is a master of the novel in verse format and does not disappoint here. Because this book addresses important questions about belief, forgiveness, and religion, it could be an excellent choice for teen book discussion groups.

4 stars

I received a free advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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The Girl With the Windup Heart by Kady Cross

Cover of The Girl With the Windup Heart by Kady CrossThe Girl With the Windup Heart by Kady Cross. Harlequin Teen, 2014

This fourth installment in The Steampunk Chronicles by Kady Cross focuses on Jack Dandy, the master criminal, and Mila, the part-human, part-automaton young woman rescued from The Machinist in book 3. In his efforts to protect Mila, Jack unintentionally breaks her heart. So Mila ventures out into the city seeking an independent life. Meanwhile Griffin King is still held captive in the Aethyr by The Machinist. Finley Jayne and the other members of King’s band of misfits fight to rescue him, drawing inexorably to dramatic showdown.

The premise behind these books is intriguing. King gathers around him a group of misfits, each with unusual special abilities. One of my favorite things about this series is that no one is the hero, saving everyone else. Everyone has to work together as a team in order to succeed. And the team grows with each book, with new members bringing unique talents and abilities to the group. In general, the romance is nicely balanced, only going a bit over the top in book 3. The Girl With the Windup Heart is another satisfying adventure in this fun series. I look forward to future books by Kady Cross.

I received a free digital advance copy through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

4 stars.

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An Excellent Graphic Adaptation of a Wonderful Book

Cover of The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel Volume 1The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel: Volume 1. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell. HarperCollins, 2014

This graphic adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, The Graveyard Book is likely to become as beloved as the book that inspired it. P. Craig Russell has captured the spirit of Gaiman’s story and enhanced it through his design of the graphic novel. Russell has collaborated with Gaiman before. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that his work on this title was so successful. The individual illustrators, Stephen B. Scott, Kevil Nowlan, Galen Showman, Tony Harris, and Jill Thompson, did a wonderful job of bringing Gaiman’s macabre world to life.

There is something about reading The Graveyard Book that conveys a real sense of Bod’s feelings of home and safety in the graveyard, that allows the reader to almost forget how horrifying his neighbors and guardians really are. I knew, intellectually, what sort of frightening creature Silas is, but it didn’t match Bod’s view of Silas as protector and safe haven. So my mind downplayed the monstrous side of Silas’ character. The reader of this graphic novel has no such luxury. One look at the cover image and it is clear how macabre the setting and characters really are. But Bod clearly feels comfortable and secure in their care. That contrast is a major theme in the novel. By making it even clearer through the illustration, this graphic novel actually enhances the story.

Russell not only scripted the graphic novel, he sketched and planned the layout for the entire project before sending each chapter out its illustrator. His unified vision coupled with careful choices of illustrators with similar styles gives the entire project a cohesion that ties the chapters together into a unified whole. But there is enough variation between the styles to give a real sense of each chapter being a separate episode in Bod’s story.

Volume 1 includes chapters 1 through 5 plus the interlude. I know Russell had to trim from the book to make it fit in this format. But he handled the adaptation so skillfully that I don’t feel anything is lacking. The story feels complete. I could go on, and on, gushing about how much I loved this book. It will have a far broader appeal than its target audience of ages 8 to 12 and is a must-have title for any library. I don’t anticipate our copy will spend much time on the shelf.

I received a free copy from the publisher in return for an honest review. I will follow my usual pattern of giving that copy to one of my teen patrons. But I will be buying another copy for myself and a copy of volume 2 when it is published this Fall.

5 stars! Can I give it more? 6 or 7 maybe? It deserves it. By far the best thing I’ve read this year!

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Hexed by Michelle Krys

Cover of Hexed by Michellle KrysHexed by Michelle Krys, Delacorte Press: 2014.

Indigo Blackwood is one of the popular students, a cheerleader who is dating the star of the football team. Her perfect high school life is only marred by her quirky mother, who owns an occult shop and insists that Indie work there, and a nerdy next door neighbor who keeps trying to be Indie’s friend no matter how many times Indie ignores her or treats her badly. Indie thinks her mom is slightly crazy because of her obsessions with conspiracy and magic and a paranoid concern for the protecting the old family Bible. But then the Bible is stolen, and Indie learns she is actually a witch. Add in a handsome, leather-clad, young warlock and things start to heat up. Soon Indie is caught in the middle of an age-old battle between sorcerers and witches.

This book sounds like a fun, paranormal story with a bit of romance that might appeal to fans of Rachel Hawkins. Instead, Hexed is a predictable story packed with the cliches. The dialogue seems like it is meant to be witty or snarky but just comes across as stilted and obnoxious. Indigo herself is not a likeable character. She’s very self-centered, more concerned with maintaining her social status at school than anything else, even the theft of the Bible, which is basically a death sentence for all witches. Since she’s a witch, she’ll die too. But Indie is more concerned with her lunch table companions. Her realization that the other members of the “In Crowd” aren’t really her friends but that the neighbor girl who sits at the “Losers’ Table” really is feels forced and fake. Why Paige would stand by Indie after the way Indie has treated her is beyond me. Even the romance fell flat for me. I never felt any chemistry between Indigo and Bishop.

As for the magic, it just seemed like window dressing. There are a few scenes of Bishop helping Indie learn to master her magic. But she never really uses it. The conflict between the sorcerers and witches is never explained. Saying the sorcerers are jealous of witches’ abilities is not a satisfying answer. The sorcerers are pretty ruthless enemies. But the witches aren’t exactly appealing allies.

This book is a mediocre rendition of typical high school drama with a thin veneer of magic. If I hadn’t gotten this book as a free digital ARC through NetGalley in return for a review, there is no way I would have finished reading it.

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Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

Cover of Free to Fall by Lauren MillerFree to Fall by Lauren Miller. New York: Harper Teen, 2014.

Rory Vaughn happily lives her life guided by Lux, an app that makes most of her decisions for her – from things as simple as what coffee to order or what music she should like to larger questions like what school to attend and whom she should date. It’s easy and comfortable. Then she meets North, the handsome outsider who refuses to use Lux and finds herself drawn to him despite the fact he is the complete opposite type of guy from what Lux would suggest for her. As she begins to think for herself, she starts to find answers to puzzles in her family’s past, secrets that involve her new school and the computer giant, Gnosis, creators of Lux. What happens to those who blindly follow the guidance they get from a device. What if the organization behind Lux has its own agenda? Is there room for Independent thought?

Many of us are already on the path to something like Lux. Online maps guide us to the nearest coffee shop. Social book sites like Goodreads tell us what to read next. Review sites tell us where we should eat. It’s a short step to an all-in-one app like Lux. People can spend more time interacting with their device than with the people around them. Search engines and news feeds guide us to certain sites and information based on formulas we can’t begin to understand. What do we miss? What do we give up when we rely on apps to guide our choices? What happens if the corporations behind the apps manipulate the results for their own ends? Free to Fall explores these questions while following the growing romance between Rory and North.

As YA romances go, Free to Fall is refreshing in that there is no real love triangle. But that doesn’t mean the path to love is a smooth one. Rory has to learn to trust her friends and North. She can’t rely only on herself. The pacing is a bit slow, a series of consecutive puzzles for Rory to solve where each answer raises new questions. In that respect it reminded me a bit of Matched by Ally Condie.

Pros: Rory’s “Plato Practicum” class raises the complex question of how to place value on a human life. The title references Milton’s Paradise Lost where free will is also the freedom to fall, a literary allusion that adds depth to the story. The scenario is plausible, both the use of an app to guide decision making, and the questions about how decision algorithms, like those in search engines, prioritize options. Now they may guide you to targeted ads, but how might they be abused to guide your actual decisions? Another plus is that this appears to be a stand-alone book.

Cons: Some aspects of the plot are predictable. The rich and powerful are in a conspiracy to control everyone else. The handsome, dark “bad boy” is really the good guy while the golden boy is problematic. Miller goes a bit overboard on the bad boy stereotype for North. The beginning of the romance isn’t entirely believable. Rory is extremely cautious in everything but goes off alone with a guy she doesn’t know because of some nebulous connection she feels. The early attraction feels like a forced plot point. But then the romance grows in a more realistic manner, with the expected misunderstandings along the way. The pacing felt a bit slow for me, with little action until the end when everything wraps up very quickly and a bit too neatly.

All in all, Free to Fall is a solid book that should appeal to a broad audience. The future setting is near enough to appeal to fans of contemporary books with a bit of an edge that will appeal to fans of dystopian stories.

Three and half stars

I received a free advance copy of the book in return for an honest review.

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The Lure of the Bright Lights

Cover of Will the Read Abit Saunders Please Stand Up?Will the Real Abi Saunders Please Stand Up? by Sara Hantz. Fort Collins, CO : Entangled Teen, 2014.

Most of us, at one time or another, have dreamed of fame and being part of what the glittering world of Hollywood. So the chance to be a stunt double for a major star sounds like a dream come true for champion kick-boxer. But Abi Saunders doesn’t like being the center of attention. Her stutter has led to her being bullied for years. The only she feels comfortable is at the kickboxing gym. But when the stunt double for a movie filming nearby is injured and can’t continue filming, Abi’s kickboxing trainer gets her an audition. No one is more surprised than Abi when she gets the job, a job she’s not even sure she wants. But Hollywood glamor is enticing, and working on a film set isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. As Abi struggles to find her place in this new world, her friends wonder what ever happened to the old Abi.

The dream of Hollywood glamor can be a strong one. I found it entirely believable that Abi would get caught up in the chance to belong in that glittering world. For someone who has been an outsider all of her life, feeling like she belongs in this movie world is heady stuff. Her friends pushed her to take the job, but seem unprepared for the demands filming will place on Abi’s time and attention. It is inevitable that conflicts and misunderstandings will arise.

Will the Real Abi Saunders Please Stand Up? is a story about trying new things and taking on challenges. But is also about the process of learning about what’s really important to you. And while Abi is struggling with those lessons, her friends and families are learning about giving her the space to spread her wings so she can explore and figure out who she really is. Abi and friends feel real and react in believable ways to unusual circumstances. It’s an enjoyable story about coming of age with an unusual twist.

A female kick-boxer as a main character is refreshing. Hantz allows her to be strong and talented in the ring while still being insecure outside it and her small circle of friends – again, a believable combination. She doesn’t always make the best choices. But in those circumstances, I’m not sure most of us would either. This is a great idea. The main characters could have been developed a bit more. While there is a romantic subplot, it is secondary to main the story. Overall it’s a solid book that should appeal to teens who enjoy contemporary fiction. 3.5 stars.

I received a free digital advanced copy through Netgalley in return for an honest review.

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A Troubling Message to Be Sending to Middle Grade Readers

Cover of A World Without Princes by Soman ChainaniA World Without Princes by Soman Chainani

I normally don’t write reviews of books I haven’t finished. I also avoid reviewing books I don’t care for, preferring to save my energy for spreading the word about great books. But in this case, I am so bothered by what’s happened in this book so far that I feel compelled to talk about it now.

Let me start by saying I enjoyed The School For Good and Evil. It was refreshing to see stereotypes of good and evil challenged. Things are not black and white, but everyone has a bit of gray in them. Sophie and Agatha put their own twist on the fairy tale happy ending. So when I saw the title of this book, I figured it would continue the challenging of stereotypes of princes and princesses. I was expecting empowered heroines who rely on each other as best friends to rescue themselves. Instead of sending a positive about strong girls and strong friendships, it presents a very troubling picture where girls must choose between their female friends and boyfriends.

Agatha and Sophie are pulled back to the school, but much has changed. Ever and Never girls are no longer forced to conform to stereotypes of how witches or princesses are supposed to look. But this freedom comes at a price. It can only happen because boys have been banished from the school. Sophie and Agatha are drawn into a conflict because Agatha’s wish for a relationship with her prince can’t coexist with her friendship with Sophie and wishes for Sophie’s happiness. The message here is that boyfriends and girl friends are incompatible. A girl can have one or the other, not both.

Bad as it is to present the idea that you can’t maintain friendships with other girls because you care about a boy, worse is the message about how empowered women behave. They stop worrying about their appearance because they don’t have to interact with boys anymore. So does that mean if they are going to share a world with boys, they have to return to the stereotypes? (I admit, this could become clearer further along in the book – a hazard of reviewing before completing the book.)

And it gets worse. What’s the first thing the women of the world do once they realize they don’t have to have a prince for a Happy Ever After ending? They boot out the princes, banishing them, treating them as peasant and slaves, and just generally being incredibly cruel to all boys. This feels like a misogynist view of feminism. Empowered women are out to stick it to all the men.

Maybe as the book goes on, Chainani challenges this stereotype. But I fear even that won’t be enough to counter reinforcing it for at least the first quarter of the book. (I do know that the theme of being forced to choose between best friend and prince does continue throughout the entire story.) I have to admit to being so turned off that I am having trouble forcing myself to pick up the book to continue reading. I’m going to try to stick with it and finish the story. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. In which case, I’ll come back here and eat humble pie.

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The Rising King by Shea Berkley

Cover of The Rising King by Shea BerkleyThe Rising King by Shea Berkley. (Keepers of Life #3) Entangled Teen, April 2014.

Dylan Kennedy’s life has more excitement than he ever wanted. Son of the King of Teag, a magical realm, but raised as a human on earth, he finds himself in a battle to protect earth from invading creatures when Teag’s magical defenses begin to fail. Meanwhile, a darkness is threatening Teag itself, an evil his father can’t seem to fight off. Add in a girlfriend who is battling to control the dark magic within herself while fighting alongside Dylan, and you’ve got more complications than anyone should have to face. Luckily Dylan has lots of support. And his girlfriend, Kera, has his back.

When I requested an advanced copy of this title from Netgalley, I didn’t realize it was Book #3. It’s a testament to the skill of Shea Berkley that I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Rising King and had no trouble following the story even though there are no long-winded summaries of the previous books. I could tell that there was back story that I was missing, and that probably would have enhanced by enjoyment of this book. But I didn’t need it.

In The Keepers of Life series, Berkley has created a new mythology and a magical world that has some intriguingly original qualities. There were a few awkward references that had me shaking my head. But I don’t have access to a final copy to compare. It’s possible they have been edited. Even if not, they did also bring a smile to my face. While, on the surface, this is Dylan’s story, Kera is an equally strong character with as much of a voice as Dylan. They are both strong and take care of each other. Both struggle with wanting to protect the other, but accept the need for them to take risks under the circumstances. Kera doesn’t need Dylan to rescue her, but they both need and receive the help and support of their friends.

All in all, a solid fantasy adventure that drew me in. Now I need to get my hands on books 1 and 2 so I can enjoy the rest of this intriguing story. 4 stars.

Thanks to Netgalley and Entangled Publishing for access to a free review copy of this book.

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“Truth” and Consequences

Cover of The Truth About Alice by Jennifer MathieuThe Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu. Roaring Book Press, 2014.

Everybody knows the truth about Alice.
Everyone knows she slept with two guys in one night at Elaine’s party.Everyone knows she’s responsible for the star quarterback’s death.
Everybody knows she’s a slut.
Yes, everybody is sure they know the truth about Alice. But those who have told the “Truth” have their own secrets.

This is a book about Alice. But we don’t hear from Alice until the very end. Actually, this is a book about Alice’s reputation and about how truth is constructed. It is a story of how people manipulate the truth for their own purposes, to protect their own secrets. The voices that we do hear are from teens who are open and honest about their faults. Their words and actions are horrible, and they admit it. But they are honest about why they behave the way they do. Their reasons are all too understandable. But rumor takes on a life of its own. And people are only too happy to have someone to blame, whether it’s the truth or not.

I was very moved by this story. The slut shaming and rumor mill are awful. But you understand why the other students act in the way they do. It would be all too easy to dismiss this as a powerful, but fictional account of a worst case scenario. Sadly, that’s not the case. Shortly after I finished this book I came across a news story about a study that found that slut shaming, similar to that depicted in this book, causes adolescent girls to remain silent and not report sexual assaults (http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/many-girls-view-sexual-violence-normal). In this atmosphere where girls accept sexual violence as normal and blame victims, a book like The Truth About Alice is a powerful and timely story that belongs in every library that serves teens. But it’s not only an important story, it’s well-written and an enjoyable read. I highly recommend this title for teens, their parents, and anyone who works with teens.

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