Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Crossover

I have said before I don't love verse novels. Do you know what I love even less? Basketball. Not a  fan. Not even a little bit. With those two things working against it, I really didn't want to read The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. But it's getting a lot of award buzz so I finally (rather petulantly) picked up a copy. Ahem. This book is AMAZING. I loved it. This is why we should always stretch ourselves to read even those things that we don't think are "our type" of books.

Josh Bell
is my  name.
But Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame
Folks call me that
'cause my game's acclaimed,
so downright dirty, it'll put you to shame.
My hair is long, my height's tall.
See, I'm the next Kevin Durant, 
LeBron, and Chris Paul.

Josh's voice. It is so perfect. The book isn't entirely blank verse, as you can see from the above. It is a combination of several different styles and types, but what they all have in common is Josh's voice. His voice which is so real, vulnerable, confused, cocky, angry, resentful, giddy, and everything that is perfect 13 year old boy. Josh is a star basketball player, twin to another star basketball player, son of a former basketball Olympian and a middle school assistant principal, and an eighth grader. Through each poem that tells of the few months of Josh's 8th grade basketball season, the reader is given a clear picture of Josh and every detail of his life, thoughts, and feelings. Few words are used but reams of information and emotion are conveyed. I could read and read it over and over and always find new things to be in awed of. I wanted to read it again promptly upon finishing and I haven't experienced that urge in quite some time. It's blowing my mind that I experienced it over a verse novel about basketball.

The book is about basketball. There's a lot of basketball in it. It is also a story about brothers, change, and the power of family. But don't let anybody tell you it's not a sports book. It is. And you know what? Even if you're not a sports fan, it doesn't matter. Excellence is excellence, and this book is excellent. The basketball is essential and provides a great deal of the metaphor in the book, but it is also really, like all MG books, a story about growing up, facing change, and how one's relationships alter and are affected by growing up (particularly when members of the opposite sex are involved). Josh's twin, JB, has a girlfriend for the first time. He's less interested in basketball and doing things with Josh. Josh is angry. Their father is clearly suffering from heart problems but refuses to go to the doctor. Josh is worried. All of this is set against the backdrop of the basketball season. It's a short read, but a powerful one.

The prose is excellent in terms of imagery and evoking thoughts and feelings. For example:
The gym is a loud crowded circus.
My stomach is a roller coaster.
My head, a carousel..
The air, heavy with the smell
of sweat, popcorn,
and the sweet perfume 
of mother's watching sons.

I could quote so much, but then there would be no reason for you to go and find a copy of your own to read which you must do. Now.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Story of Owen

I waited too long to read this book. Seriously. When it came out back in March, I was intrigued. Many people I trust said read this. It's good. Why did I wait so long? The Story of Owen  by E.K. Johnston is a perfect blend of myth, reality, sly humor, and exhilarating action-adventure.

Synopsis:
Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival. There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition. But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected. Such was Trondheim's fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard. Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!

As the title implies, this is the story of Owen, a teenage dragon-slayer-in-training who helps guard the small town of Trondheim from dragons while trying to pass Algebra. Yet this isn't just the story of Owen. In fact, it isn't even mostly the story of Owen. It is really the story of Siobhan, the gifted musician who Owen encounters on his first day at his new school when they are both late for English. Like it was fated. Except not that kind of fated. Siobhan's talent makes her the perfect partner for Owen. Even though the tradition has long since died, every good dragon-slayer needs a good bard and Owen and Siobhan are about to resurrect the art. Siobhan is the one telling this story, in a voice that is both straightforward and trickily slides away from the telling the whole truth at the same time. The Siobhan telling the story is telling it from somewhere in the future. The writing is well done and has a dry wry wit that is subversive and oh so well balanced. I like both Siobhan and Owen, but I really like their partnership and how we see it unfold and grow. Their loyalty towards each grows in a natural way as the book progresses as does the strength of their companionship. And I love that is all their relationship is. I hope it stays that way in the future volumes.  I love romance and am hopeful that there will be some eventually, but not between the two of them. One other thing I appreciated about both of them is that they are not super-heroes. They are kids who are talented yes, but who work at what they are good at to make themselves even better. And they work hard. I also really liked the supporting cast of characters, particularly Owen's aunts, Lottie and Hannah. I do feel that Siobhan is lacking in emotional depth enough that she kept me too removed from the story. I think that is probably due to the device of her being a bard and telling the story from the future, carrying we only know what baggage, wounds, and heartache. But it felt as though she didn't feel strongly enough about anything or anyone. Even the descriptions of her music have a vaguely detached air (which makes a bit more sense at the end), but the effect of all that was I wanted to know everyone and feel this story more deeply than I did. That is my one and only complaint though.

The world-builiding here is excellent. It is our world set in modern times with all our modern gadgets and technology. The difference? Dragons. Dragons have been a scourge on humanity in this alternate world for all of history but with the beginning of the age of modern industrialization they became an even bigger scourge. Dragons, you see, crave carbon fuels. It's like candy for them and they instinctively seek out anywhere they can find it. Cities with factories, roads with cars, water with boats, if you are anywhere these things are chances are you will be attacked by a dragon. The political ramifications of this are so well done, and Johnston raises so many provocative questions about our own world and how things are managed through them. Siobhan, Owen, his family, and some of their friends are trying to change the way the world works, but change does not come easy or free. I enjoyed how the world-building was so detailed throwing in so much history, not only maintaining my interest as a reader, but heightening it. It is also through the world-building that the major themes are developed. One thing that is highlighted is how easy media and history are to manipulate and I appreciated that aspect particularly. Siobhan is not just there to be a cheerleader for Owen, she is in charge of shaping perception not just about him, but dragon-slayers in general, and advancing the political and social causes their group deem important. It's fascinating stuff. 

The writing brings this world to vivid life. What I felt it was lacking in character emotion, it more than made up for in terms of top rate plotting. The humor in the book is dry and tongue-in-cheek, something else I truly appreciated.

I highly recommend this for all fans of fantasy, particularly if you enjoy a good Nordic tale retold. It has all the feel of Beowulf, while being set in the present time. Truly excellent. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Whispering Skull

I was a huge fan of The Screaming Staircase when it came out last year and couldn't wait to get my hands on the sequel, The Whispering Skull. Stroud brings his talent for eerie creepiness, mystery, and snarky humor to this latest edition and it is so much fun.

Synopsis:
In the six months since Anthony, Lucy, and George survived a night in the most haunted house in England, Lockwood & Co. hasn't made much progress. Quill Kipps and his team of Fittes agents keep swooping in on Lockwood's investigations. Finally, in a fit of anger, Anthony challenges his rival to a contest: the next time the two agencies compete on a job, the losing side will have to admit defeat in the Times newspaper.
Things look up when a new client, Mr. Saunders, hires Lockwood & Co. to be present at the excavation of Edmund Bickerstaff, a Victorian doctor who reportedly tried to communicate with the dead. Saunders needs the coffin sealed with silver to prevent any supernatural trouble. All goes well-until George's curiosity attracts a horrible phantom. 
Back home at Portland Row, Lockwood accuses George of making too many careless mistakes. Lucy is distracted by urgent whispers coming from the skull in the ghost jar. Then the team is summoned to DEPRAC headquarters. Kipps is there too, much to Lockwood's annoyance. Bickerstaff's coffin was raided and a strange glass object buried with the corpse has vanished. Inspector Barnes believes the relic to be highly dangerous, and he wants it found. 


In the six months since the first novel ended, Lockwood, George, and Lucy have made good on the reputation they established in the first book. They have been busy banishing ghouls and continuing to build their business. The plot of The Whispering Skull begins with a bet with their rival team at the Fittes Agency and springboards them into an even more intense and circuitous mystery than their last. There is a mysterious artifact that has disappeared into the London underworld that kills those who look at it, and it seems to have a startlingly hypnotic effect on George. The criminals who want the artifact are also killing for it, and the mysterious skull in the jar has finally decided to start talking to Lucy once again, its interest awakened by the mystery it knows too many details of. The mystery here was rather easy for me to solve, as with the first, but also like the first that was okay with me because it is all about the journey the characters take to get at the answer. The setting of this book is expanded as the team goes out across the city of London. There is quite a lot of adventure, danger, fighting, and narrow escapes as Anthony, Lucy, and George strive to solve the mystery before the evil object takes another life and it's one of their own. 

I enjoyed the way the characters grew and expanded in this book. After his performance in the first book, I was particularly happy to see Anthony falter a couple of times in this one. He made some mistakes and his thinking was wrong and off the mark on a couple of occasions. I was worried after the first book Stroud may turn him into one of those characters never allowed to fail, but he fills him in a little more in this book. Secrets Lockwood wants to bury come to light in this book too which I think is probably the set-up for the next book. It's fascinating and how it's revealed shows a lot about the growth of his character and his changing relationship with Lucy and George. George was given more of a role in this book too, a chance to be more than just a stock character to foil Lockwood and Lucy. Lucy's talent is growing and becoming something more and she has many mixed feelings about this. Her character, despite being the narrator, was the one I felt grew and filled out the least. I'm hoping that will change with the next book.

What makes this slightly better than the first book is the sly humor that is woven in it to it. I think it is so much more amusing and that the comic is there as relief against the drama in a much better way here.

Anyone who enjoyed the first book is sure to enjoy this one as well. I'm pretty invested in all theses characters now and am in this series until the end for sure.

I read an e-galley provided by the publisher, Disney Hyperion, via NetGalley. The Whispering Skull has a release date of September 16th. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wildlife

I have wanted to read Fiona Wood ever since people were talking about Six Impossible Things when it first came out. I waited impatiently for it to be picked up in America. And for some reason it still hasn't been. But I was more than happy to jump on the chance to read Wildlife instead. I'm happy to report that all the praise Wood received for her writing was well deserved, and I can only hope this being published in the US means Six Impossible Things has a chance now too.

Synopsis:
During a semester in the wilderness, sixteen-year-old Sib expects the tough outdoor education program and the horrors of dorm life, but friendship drama and an unexpected romance with popular Ben Capaldi? That will take some navigating.
New girl Lou has zero interest in fitting in, or joining in. Still reeling from a loss that occurred almost a year ago, she just wants to be left alone. But as she witnesses a betrayal unfolding around Sib and her best friend Holly, Lou can't help but be drawn back into the land of the living.


Wildlife is a character study. It focuses on two girls, Sibylla and Louisa, who are experiencing opposite phases of life. Lou is devastated after the death of her boyfriend, Fred. She was a happy, focused, and intelligent young girl with dreams and happiness pouring out of her. She knew who she was and was content in her world. Now her world has been shattered and her dreams left in pieces. She is still fiercely intelligent and owns who she is as a person. All her sadness, grief, anxiety, and fear are part of who she is now. At the same time she hasn't really stopped living. It's subtly there in the words she speaks to others, how she still engages in the world, looks at it with critical eyes, and is making plans for her future. Sibylla,on the other hand, is not and never has been really sure of who she is. Yes, she is smart, on the nerdy side, a girl who doesn't like parties or being the center of attention. But thanks to a one off modeling job and the social climbing plans of her best friend Holly, Sib has the chance to enter the world of cool kids she hasn't really been a part of before. Bound together by being assigned to the same house and through their mutual friendship with Michael, a new friend for Lou and Sib's oldest friend, the girls are drawn toward each other too. Through their stories Wood gives an accurate picture of the heartaches of growing up and the intricacies involved in navigating the minefield that is the high school social world while you're still trying to figure out who you are and what you want. 

Wildlife is not just a study of these two girls. Through them it is also a study of the people around them. Holly, Sib's best friend, is a conniving needy attention seeker who uses Sib and is just plain ugly to most everyone else. Yet you can also see how and why she is the way she is and how lost and vulnerable she is at the same time. Michael, the boy who is friends with both girls, is super smart, talented, and driven. He is a rock to both of them, but also has is points of weakness. Ben Capaldi, Sib's boyfriend, is the golden boy. He isn't as nuanced as the other characters, but I do like how he is so typically teenage boy. In fact, that is a plus for everyone in the book. They are very much teens, and through their eyes all the struggles, ridiculous choices, amazing intelligence, and thirst for the world that can be found in teens is exhibited.

Female sexuality and how teen girls are just as much sexual beings as their male counterparts is a theme that is important to this novel and explored well. Both Lou and Sib are (or have been) sexually active. This is another way in which the two foil each other. Lou's sexual relationship with her boyfriend was thought out, discussed, planned for. Sib is an example of how one can find oneself going from "we need to talk about this but I like how you make me feel even though I'm not really ready" to "whoa I just had sex". The conversations the other students have about everyone else's sex life is realistic as well.

I enjoyed Wildlife very much. While slow moving, it is a book that does characterization so well you feel you are drawn into their lives completely.

Content Warning: sex scenes only barely described, drugs and alcohol used by some at parties, strong language

I read an e-galley provided by the publisher, Poppy, via Edelweiss. Wildlife's US release date is September 16th. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Magic Thief: Home

For fans of the Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas, the latest installment, The Magic Thief: Home, is a much anticipated and highly welcome addition. It also has the potential to draw in new fans as a new chapter in Conn's life and the city of Wellmet begins. Whether readers are old fans or newly experiencing the magic for the first time, every reader of this book is in for a fantastically twisty tale of magic, mayhem, discovery, and intrigue. 

Synopsis:
Despite successfully securing a balance between the competing magics of Wellmet, Conn is not happy. Duchess Rowan has promoted him to ducal magister, but the other wizards see him only as a thief. But something sinister is brewing, as magicians’ locus stones are being stolen and magical spells are going awry. As Conn faces old enemies and powerful magical forces, is he strong enough to save the city he calls home?

Conn is a bit out of sorts since finishing with the magics of Wellmet, returning home, and having his magicalicus swallowed by a small dragon he calls Pip. Who is he? Where does he belong? What is he meant to do now? The magics in Wellmet are similarly out of sorts, competing for the power of the town. Conn is the best one to deal with the magics as he understands them best, but when he is in such turmoil himself, embroiled in another spree of crime, mystery, and intrigue he has to solve, it is difficult to stay focused. I loved the way the magics reflect and contrast Conn's own character. He is wild, not meant to be locked down, and hates being manipulated, but at the same time wants a purpose and stability. He thrives on danger. Of course, everyone who loves Conn just wants to protect him. Ro and Nevery feel the best way to do this is to make him the ducal magister but Conn is having none of that. Conn's stubbornness is familiar to older reader's of the series, as is his friends' exasperation with him. It has a different feel in this book though and is not just he same old story as the original trilogy. They've all grown a lot and are facing a new reality. Conn is starting to realize he needs help from time to time and relying on others is okay. The others are starting to realize trying to manage Conn is a lost cause, and one by one they fall to trusting him to do what must be done and do it well.

One of the great strengths of this series is how it highlights character and relationships so well, but does it simply through showing them in the context of a fast moving, exciting, and twisty plot. It is so subtle and yet you can not read these without coming away feeling connected to all these characters and seeing their strong connections to each other. I love the friendship between Conn and Ro, and how it is just a friendship. (Please, please, let that continue to be the case. And there are hints that it will continue to be the case, thank goodness. I like the direction of those hints a lot.) I love it when books can show a good male/female friendship that is nothing more than that. (Yes, they do exist!)

The story finds Conn yet again trying to prove he is not the gutter-boy thief he once was, but it is interesting that there are actually very few people who assume he is. There are some, as there will probably always be, but for the most part, he is trusted by those around him. The story is from his point of view, yet it is clear that he is still reacting to how people used to see him automatically rather than how they are reacting to him now. Conn's talents and spotted past are essential to unwinding the knot of magic and criminal acts being visited on Wellmet. This leads to some dangerous situations and a couple moments of peril that had me visibly trying to restrain myself from reacting since I was reading the book in public. All my emotions were fully engaged and that made for some fraught moments for my poor heart.

Fans of this series definitely do not want to miss this latest installment. It very nicely lends itself to new readers too. The necessary events from the previous books are included in clever ways that new readers will know what is going on, and old readers won't be bored reading a lot of information they already know. (It's also a nice refresher for those who may have forgotten.) At the same time, this is a new phase in Conn's life and the story reflects that. It isn't a continuation of the old story so much as the beginning of the next part of Conn's story. I do think new readers of the series will find themselves unable to resist going back and reading the first three.

I read an e-galley provided by the publisher, Harper Children's, via Edelweiss. The Magic Thief: Home will be available September 16.