Monday, December 05, 2016

Mini Reviews: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz and Gertie's Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley

From Back Cover: Follow Hansel and Gretel as they run away from their own story and into eight other scary fairy tales. They'll encounter witches and warlocks, hunters with deadly aim, and bakers with ovens that are just right for baking children ... It may be frightening, but unlike those other fairy tales you know, these are true. 

My Rating: 3 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Having loved Adam Gidwitz’s In a Glass Grimmly, I thought it was time to give its companion novel, A Tale Dark and Grimm, a try. Despite having some of the same elements as In a Glass Grimmly (e.g. a few gory parts here and there, an interjecting narrator that's funny, etc.) however, I didn’t enjoy A Tale Dark and Grimm as much – perhaps because the main characters were Hansel and Gretel, who I don’t care for as Grimm characters either.

A Tale Dark and Grimm was released in October 2010 by Dutton Books for Young Readers. 
From Inside Jacket: Gertie Reece Foy is 100% Not-From-Concentrate awesome. Which is why she's dumbfounded by her mother's plan to move away from their coastal Alabama town, leaving Gertie with her father and Great-Aunt Rae. Most kids would be upset about this. But Gertie is absolutely not upset, because she has a plan. More than a plan. She has a mission. Gertie is going to become the greatest fifth grader in the universe! All she needs to do is: write the best summer speech (after she finds Zombie frog), become the smartest student in her class (if her best friend, Jean the Jean-ius, doesn't mind), and win the lead part in the play (so long as a Swiss-chocolate meltdown doesn't mess things up). There's just one problem: Seat-stealing new girl Mary Sue Spivey wants to be the best fifth grader, too. And there is simply not enough room at the top for the two of them.

My Rating: 3 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley was a book that I generally liked because of the realistic way it handled a theme like parental abandonment and because it featured a non-traditional family structure – Gertie is raised by her great-aunt and her dad (who is often away due to his job). At times though, Gertie could be perceived as selfish due to her me-first attitude and inability to listen to others. 

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness was released in October 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR). 

In exchange for an honest review, this book was received from the publisher (Raincoast Books) for free. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: The Midnight Star by Marie Lu

From Goodreads: Adelina Amouteru is done suffering. She’s turned her back on those who have betrayed her and achieved the ultimate revenge: victory. Her reign as the White Wolf has been a triumphant one, but with each conquest her cruelty only grows. The darkness within her has begun to spiral out of control, threatening to destroy all she’s gained. When a new danger appears, Adelina’s forced to revisit old wounds, putting not only herself at risk, but every Elite. In order to preserve her empire, Adelina and her Roses must join the Daggers on a perilous quest - though this uneasy alliance may prove to be the real danger. 

My Rating: 3 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: After loving The Rose Society, I must say that Marie Lu’s The Midnight Star wasn’t as strong a conclusion as I hoped for for The Young Elites series.

Although I breezed through reading The Midnight Star, I felt quite detached from the characters while reading it. Nowhere was this more obvious than when certain characters died. I feel that a huge reason why I couldn’t make myself care about these deaths was because the characters didn’t feel like they were used to their full potential. For example, it felt like Lu didn’t know what to do with Enzo anymore so she simply killed him off again. Moreover, some characters still weren’t fleshed out enough. A case in point would be Magiano: we learn a little about him, but not enough to explain why he’s so drawn to Adelina and willing to do anything for her. Finally, the religious element was unexpected, and I remain unsure how I feel about it overall.

The Midnight Star was released in October 2016 by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers. 

Comments About the Cover: I like the cover, but I think The Young Elites’ and The Rose Society’s covers are better.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mini Reviews: Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin and Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

From Goodreads: Kelsey Finkelstein is fourteen and FRUSTRATED. Every time she tries to live up to her awesome potential, her plans are foiled - by her impossible parents, her annoying little sister, and life in general. But with her first day of high school coming up, Kelsey is positive that things are going to change. Enlisting the help of her three best friends - sweet and quiet Em, theatrical Cass, and wild JoJo - Kelsey gets ready to rebrand herself and make the kind of mark she knows is her destiny. Things start out great - her arch-nemesis has moved across the country, giving Kelsey the perfect opportunity to stand out on the soccer team and finally catch the eye of her long-time crush. But soon enough, an evil junior’s thirst for revenge, a mysterious photographer, and a series of other catastrophes make it clear that just because KELSEY has a plan for greatness ... it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is in on it. 

My Rating: 4 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Meredith Zeitlin’s Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters was the perfect novel to lighten my mood when I was really stressed and get me out of my reading slump. A quick read filled with hilarious moments, this book features a narrator that’s incredibly easy to connect with as we’ve all been through what Kelsey has – trying to figure out our identity and how to leave a mark, having friendships change, falling in love, etc. I definitely encourage you to give Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters a try, and dare you to read it without giggling!

Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters was released in March 2012 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

From Goodreads: Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold's attackers make them their next target.

My Rating: 3 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman was a book that I decided to read because I loved its premise – hunting for and getting to keep books by having to solve puzzles! However, unlike some MG books which have crossover appeal, it was obvious that the target audience for this book were Middle Graders for two reasons: 1) Emily’s friend James names his cowlick and almost treats it like an imaginary friend, which was annoying to read about as an older reader, and 2) the villain of the story was quite predictable and you knew that the characters were never in any danger from him. 

Book Scavenger was released in June 2015 by Henry Holt and Co. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Mini Reviews: Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz and Speed of Life by J.M. Kelly

From Back Cover: To Molly Nathans, perfect is: the number four, the tip of a newly sharpened number two pencil, a crisp, white pad of paper, her neatly aligned glass animal figurines. What’s not perfect is Molly’s mother leaving the family to take a faraway job with the promise to return in one year. Molly knows that promises are often broken, so she hatches a plan to bring her mother home: Win the Lakeville Middle School Slam Poetry Contest. The winner is honored at a fancy banquet with table cloths. Molly’s sure her mother would never miss that. Right? But as time goes on, writing and reciting slam poetry become harder. Actually, everything becomes harder as new habits appear, and counting, cleaning, and organizing are not enough to keep Molly’s world from spinning out of control.

My Rating: 3.5 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Elly Swartz’s Finding Perfect is another book that one can add to their list of books focusing on mental health. Geared for middle graders, this book features a likeable protagonist in Molly, whose need for control slowly escalates as she places greater internal pressure on herself to succeed and deals with a complicated home life. The depiction of OCD is realistic, and Swartz does a great job capturing Molly’s confusion and anxiety over her symptoms.

Finding Perfect was released in October 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

In exchange for an honest review, this book was received from the publisher (Raincoast Books) for free.

From Inside Jacket: Twins Crystal and Amber have a plan: Be the first in their family to graduate from high school, get full-time jobs, and move out of the hovel they've called home for eighteen years. When one of them gets pregnant junior year, they promise to raise the baby together. It’s not easy, but between Amber's job washing dishes and Crystal working at a gas station, they’re just scraping by. Car-buff Crystal’s grades catch the attention of the new guidance counselor, who tells her about a college that offers a degree in automotive restoration. When she secretly applies - and gets in - new opportunities threaten their once-certain plans, and Crystal must make a choice: follow her dreams or stay behind and honor the promise she made to her sister. 

My Rating: 3 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: If you're not a fan of contemporary novels due to their slower pacing, Speed of Life by J.M. Kelly probably isn't for you since it has a plot where very little happens. There are also instances of slut shaming in Speed of Life, and it features a narrator that comes across as selfish. However, it also has a plot twist that I didn’t see coming, and shows a strong relationship between twin sisters that evolves over the course of a year. In addition, I liked that Crystal chooses to pursue a non-traditional career.

Speed of Life was released by HMH Books for Young Readers in October 2016. 

In exchange for an honest review, this book was received from the publisher (Raincoast Books) for free.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review: The Possibility of Somewhere by Julia Day

From Goodreads: Ash Gupta has a life full of possibility. His senior year is going exactly as he’s always wanted - he's admired by his peers, enjoying his classes and getting the kind of grades that his wealthy, immigrant parents expect. There's only one obstacle in Ash's path: Eden Moore - the senior most likely to become class valedictorian. How could this unpopular, sharp-tongued girl from the wrong side of the tracks stand in his way? All Eden's ever wanted was a way out. Her perfect GPA should be enough to guarantee her a free ride to college - and an exit from her trailer-park existence for good. The last thing she needs is a bitter rivalry with Ash, who wants a prized scholarship for his own selfish reasons. Or so she thinks ... When Eden ends up working with Ash on a class project, she discovers that the two have more in common than either of them could have imagined. They’re both in pursuit of a dream - one that feels within reach thanks to their new connection. But what does the future hold for two passionate souls from totally different worlds? 

My Rating: 1.5 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: It’s sad to say but there’s a distinct lack of diverse love interests, which is why The Possibility of Somewhere by Julia Day caught my eye. A love interest who was Indian? Awesome!

Unfortunately, the romance in The Possibility of Somewhere was hard to believe for so many reasons, not the least of which was that Ash and Eden lacked chemistry. It was also not clear why they hated each other in the beginning, and the issue of racism that the two had to deal with from their parents was handled much too easily. Furthermore, although the synopsis makes it seem like the book would be narrated from both Ash and Eden’s perspectives, Eden actually was the only main character. As a result, Ash basically came off as a jerk who only noticed her when she wore some fitting clothes and then had all these expectations about her, whereas Eden became one of those clingy, annoying girlfriends.

The friendship between Eden and Mundy wasn’t something I liked either, and basically rubbed me the wrong way the minute it was revealed that Mundy only befriended Eden because Mundy had never hung out with anyone that lived in a trailer park. Meanwhile, Eden kept going on about how perfect Mundy was.

The only thing that saved The Possibility of Somewhere from being a complete failure was the great relationship between Eden and her stepmom. Stepparents usually seem to be a source of tension in the books I’ve read so it was nice to see this type of familial relationship depicted positively.

The Possibility of Somewhere was released in September 2016 by St. Martin’s Griffin. 

Comments About the Cover: It seems like a very generic romance cover.  

In exchange for an honest review, this book was received from the publisher (Macmillan) via NetGalley.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Guest Post: J.M. Kelly

Twins Crystal and Amber have the same goal: to be the first in their family to graduate high school and make something of their lives. When one gets pregnant during their junior year, they promise to raise the baby together. It’s not easy, but between their after-school jobs, they’re scraping by. Crystal’s grades catch the attention of the new guidance counselor, who tells her about a college that offers a degree in automotive restoration, perfect for the car buff she is. When she secretly applies - and gets in - new opportunities threaten their once-certain plans, and Crystal must make a choice: follow her dreams or stay behind and honor the promise she made to her sister.

Today, I'd like to welcome J.M. Kelly, the author of Speed of Life to my blog. J.M. is here to talk about one of her hobbies, building miniatures.

When I'm writing a new book, there comes a point where I'm so absorbed in it that I can't do any of my normal after-work past times, like read, or cook anything fancy ... or clean the house. And that's when I turn to visual arts. I wouldn't say I'm great at painting or drawing, but it's fun to do and it's a release from words, plots, and characters. It takes all my attention because it's not something I do regularly and it gives my brain a break from thinking about the story.

One of my favourite things to do is build miniatures. My college degree is in Theatre Arts and at university I had to take stagecraft and scene design. We learned to build dioramas which I found really fun. A few years ago, when I wanted to have a writing cabin constructed for me, I first built a small one to scale out of foam core. I painted it with kids' poster paints, mixing the colours like I used to do in Grade 7 art class. You can see a video of it here.

My friend is an architect and she and I took it out into the yard with her husband, the builder, and we positioned it in different places on our property, deciding on the building spot and turning it in different directions to get an idea of good placement, which was actually pretty cool and not anything I'd intended to do with it.

I have such clear pictures in my head of places I imagine and all of my books are like little movies in my head. Speed of Life is so visual to me, and I hope it comes across to readers, but in my head, I know every detail of the place Crystal, Amber, and Natalie live in, so I decided it would be fun to build it in miniature.

First I laid it out on paper, planning to build the whole house. But then I realized even at a small scale (1/2" to the foot), it would be pretty big, so I decided to build only the garage-bedroom that they share. I laid it out on a board that was big enough to include the driveway, too. I had plans for that driveway.

Here are some pictures of it:

If you're looking at it in person, you can see a lot more detail, but even these pictures give you a good idea of my vision. Some things are more "representative" of what they are supposed to be, and others look a little more realistic. This is because I'm pretty much winging it and trying to have fun, not judge my abilities as an artist. After all, it's something I do to relax. I figure building miniatures is a lot like cooking…if you want a perfect cake, go buy one. If you want a delicious, homemade cake with ingredients you know about, make one and who cares if it's slightly lopsided?

I knit the bedspreads for the beds and the crib, but I printed out tiny pictures to make the posters on the walls. It was great fun choosing decorations for each side of the room depending on which girl slept where. And I printed out a tiny picture of pampers to make the box of diapers, cut up an ice cube tray to make Rubbermaid storage containers, and used a scrap of old material for the rug. The rug covers a stain Crystal made when she worked on a car part in their bedroom (it might look like I spilled paint there, but I admit nothing). I'm not sure if the toothpick legs on the crib could actually hold Natalie without collapsing, but they look okay!

The reason I included the driveway (and the oil stain) is because like Amber, I have ambitions that there will be a cool Mustang parked there. I bought a plastic model kit last spring that my husband and I were going to put together, but do you know how many pieces those models have in them? Probably as many as a real car, except they're tiny! I could write another novel in the time it would take to put it together. I'm seriously considering making a paper mâché car. Or possibly I'll just make some tiny bricks and primer the model and "put it up on bricks." Everyone who restores cars seems to have at least one that doesn't run, up on bricks, somewhere in their yard. Why not Crystal? 

I have a terrible time visualizing settings so these photos should definitely help me with picturing Amber and Crystal's bedroom. Thanks for dropping by, J.M.! 

A bit about J.M. (as found on Goodreads): J.M. Kelly is the YA pen name for the children's author Joelle Anthony. She loves the rain, which is good because she was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. She spent her childhood with her nose in a book, often in the backseat of whatever old car her dad had at the time. She's worked as an actress, a Minor League Baseball souvenir hawker, the Easter Bunny, and various other not-so-odd jobs. Now she mostly writes novels, but she still dabbles in sketch comedy, nonfiction articles, and teaching writing to both kids and adults. She recently wrote and starred in her first full-length play, along with her husband. Books by Joelle Anthony include: Restoring Harmony, The Right & the Real and the forthcoming A Month of Mondays.

Speed of Life can be bought from: [Amazon] [Chapters]

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

From Back Cover: In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now - but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood. In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling out again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters - and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission. But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair ... 

My Rating: 3.5 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Inspired by the Russian folktale Vassilissa the Beautiful, Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night is a bizarre read that probably won’t appeal to everybody. If you like your books to make sense, Vassa in the Night is not that type of book. The plot, at times, took strange turns that I found downright confusing. For example, I still don’t get Vassa’s dad’s desire to be a German shepherd!

At other times though, despite the magic making no sense, I really enjoyed the book. Porter’s writing was almost dreamlike; and I loved that the story features a witch who doesn’t hesitate to behead shoplifters and has a great marketing campaign, a pair of bloodthirsty hands who delight in deception and violence, and a kleptomaniac wooden doll with an endless appetite. I also thought the setting was atmospheric and magical.

An odd book that should be given a chance, Vassa in the Night was released on September 20, 2016 by Tor Teen. 

Comments About the Cover: I like how the text stands out against the simple background.  

In exchange for an honest review, this book was received from the publisher (Raincoast Books) for free. 

Vassa in the Night can be bought from: [Amazon] [Barnes and Noble] [Book Depository]
As part of the blog tour for Vassa in the Night, I was lucky enough to ask Sarah a question as well. I asked her, "If you were to write a story inspired by another piece of writing, what work do you think it would be based upon and why?"

Hi Zahida! I doubt I’ll ever write another retelling, but I can think of a few more Russian fairy tales that would make great novels. “Finest the Falcon” could be particularly lovely, though I’m not sure a story that romantic would be the right fit for me. I’d love it if somebody else tackled that one, though. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing something with “Ivan, the Glowing Bird, and the Gray Wolf.” Ivan encounters the Gray Wolf when the Wolf devours his horse in the wilderness; talk about a meet-cute! But then after that violent introduction, the Wolf is passionately loyal to Ivan, even when he doesn’t deserve it. There’s something so moving and fierce about their relationship; I think it could make an amazing book.