Friday, November 20, 2015

Dream On, Amber

I will be honest. I've been reading a lot of depressing MG books lately. They are all about the same things and the plots are starting to run together in my head. And then I read Dream On, Amber by Emma Shevah, and it was like a ray of sunshine burst into my world.

Ambra Alessandra Leola Kimiko Miyamota has many problems, not the least of which is the terrible name her Italian mother and Japanese father saddled her with. To make things easy on herself she goes by Amber. But she can't hide how short she is and is tired of telling people yes she is really 11. She can't hide her mixed heritage either, and is tired of the questions and people asking her to say something in Japanese. (Her standard response is "sushi"). She hates that she has a boring old flip phone that doesn't even have a camera or connect to the Internet. How uncool does her mom want her to be? Most of all she hates having the hole in her life caused by her father leaving them. When her little sister, Bella, realizes she is missing out on a dad and tries to write him a letter, Amber responds creating a dad in her head to help her through her problems and make both her and Bella a little more content.

Amber's voice is so perfect. It has the exact right combination of snark and vulnerability you hear from 11 year olds. She is smart, but common sense often escapes her. She can be judgmental and impulsive and brave and scared.  She is incredibly real and just jumps off the page. Amber's relationship with Bella is beautifully depicted too. They squabble and fight like any pair of siblings, but there is a deep devotion and caring underpinning their relationship that comes out in their every interaction-even the sniping ones. Bella herself is a fully realized character which is not something we see a lot in the younger siblings in MG fiction. I appreciated how the author wrote how the girls feel something is missing with their father being gone, but simultaneously showed how great a family they have anyway. They are missing something and it needs to be acknowledged that it's okay to mourn the absence of someone you think should be there for you. The family unit in the book is a strong one though. The girls have a fantastic mother, a doting grandmother, and they have each other. I am sucker for sibling stories, especially ones about sisters, so this book was a perfect fit for me.

The book has several elements going on to form the plot. There are Amber's letters to Bella, Amber starting at the upper school and not having many friends, a situation with a bully, and an art competition Amber is being forced to enter. It is a lot, but at the same time it's not, because this is Amber's story. It is about her life and these are all little pieces of who she is at the time we are glimpsing into her life. All of it works to make her voice stronger and her character more rounded. I liked the way it all came together in the end too and how much Amber grew as a person.

My one major complaint about the book is not a flaw in the writing, but in the editing and a decision made by the publisher to Americanize the language. STOP DOING THIS, PUBLISHERS. Kids are smart and British English is not going to throw them into massive confusion especially if your already dropping in Italian occasionally. Context is everyone's friend. This could have been a five star read for me, but that was a major distraction. (Though it's a testament to how much I like Amber's voice that I like the book as much as I do. I usually DNF books that do that.)

Some favorite quotes:
She was nice and everything but I wasn't sure I could ever be proper friends with her because her bag was pink and so was her pencil case. I know that's really shallow and everything, but she also had a button saying "I heart Justin Bieber" on her coat, and I really don't heart him at all, so our friendship was never going to be massively deep and special. (p37)

She smiled at me with pity and confusion an went back to the conversation, so I just stared out of the window and in my head, I drew the world as it should be.
For a while it made me feel better.
But then I got to school. (p100)

Both of these highlight Amber's loneliness, but also capture the varied aspect's of her personality. I really like that part about drawing the world as it should be. Amber is an introvert and that's what we introverts do in our heads. All. The. Time. And it does make you feel better. But then reality happens.

I am now handing this one over to my own 11 year old who loves art and snark as much as Amber does. (And also does NOT heart Justin Bieber.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

WoW: The Left-Handed Fate

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault are on a mission: find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine. They're not exactly sure what this machine does, but they have it on good authority that it will stop the war that's raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte's France. Despite being followed by mysterious men dressed all in black, they're well on their way to finding everything they need when their ship, the famous Left-Handed Fate, is taken by the Americans.

And not just any Americans. The Fate (and with it, Lucy and Max) are put under the command of Oliver Dexter, who's only just turned twelve.

But Lucy and Max aren't the only ones trying to put the engine together, and if the pieces fall into the wrong hands, it could prove disastrous. Oliver is faced with a choice: help Lucy and Max and become a traitor to his country? Or follow orders and risk endangering that same country and many others at the same time--not to mention his friends?

There I was calmly perusing the Macmillan catalog on Edelweiss when suddenly there this was. And then I wasn't so calm anymore. I knew it was coming eventually. I knew Kate Milford was writing it. I didn't know we were getting it so soon. I mean "soon" is still almost a year away. BUT THERE IS A NEW KATE MILFORD BOOK COMING IN 2016!!!!! (August 23rd to be exact)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Detective's Assistant

If you are looking for a fun adventurous historical fiction for MG readers, The Detective's Assistant by Kat Hannifin is a great choice.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Eleven-year-old Nell Warne arrives on her aunt's doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows. If her Aunt Kate rejects her, it's the miserable Home for the Friendless.

Luckily, canny Nell makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate...and not just by helping out with household chores. For Aunt Kate is the first-ever female detective employed by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Nell has a knack for the kind of close listening and bold action that made Pinkerton detectives famous in Civil War-era America. With huge, nation-changing events simmering in the background, Nell uses skills new and old to uncover truths about her past and solve mysteries in the present.

Nell is such a fun character and she has a strong unique voice. Smart and witty, she is more than a match and the best partner for her Aunt Kate, a Pinkerton detective. Kate is an excellent character in her own right, blazing a path for herself in a world that has not always been kind. Both Nell and Kate have suffered a lot of heartache. They are both prickly and wary of each other. Watching their relationship unfold over the course of the story was fun, endearing, and touching. 

The story is rich in historical details, but is not encumbered by its historical significance. Important events occur and are discussed of but their purpose is in serving the lives of the characters rather than the characters serving the events. This is an important distinction for me in historical fiction, and one I find doesn't occur as often as it should. 

My one complaint about the book is that it takes quite some time to get to the point. I feel like some of the set up could have been cut down to make the book shorter.

This is a great recommendation to give to kids who like adventure and humorous narrators. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Wrinkled Crown

Anne Nesbet is one of those authors who always surprises me. Her book like they will be one thing, but they have so many fascinating layers. The Wrinkled Crown is my favorite book she's written yet. 

Linny has been tethered to Sayra all of her life. From the moment it became obvious Linny had a talent for music, she was put at Sayra's side to keep her safe. To keep her from even picking up a Lourka and allowing her talents to be realized. In the town of Lourka if a girl even brushes against a Lourka accidentally before her twelfth birthday, she is spirited off by mysterious voices to the Away. Linny and Sayra have developed a special bond, and they have secrets. Sayra allows Linny to run free in the woods. Linny unable to resist the call of music uses these times to craft her very own Lourka. Sayra feels she's failed Linny and wishes that Linny's fate would be hers. When that is what happens, Linny feels guilty but also determined to be the one to rescue her friend. In addition to music Linny possesses another gift: she never gets lost. She can find her way anywhere. With her Lourka on her back, Linny sets out to find a way to save her friend. Even if it means leaving her home and traveling to the Plain-a place no one from Lourka has gone to and then returned from. She is reluctantly accompanied by her father's apprentice, Elias who has his own motivations for rescuing Sayra. The Plain is not a welcoming place though, and soon Linny and Elias find themselves at the center of a political battle. Linny appears to everyone to be The Girl with the Lourka, whose return everyone is eagerly awaiting so that she can right the wrongs of the world. There are people who wan to exploit her and people who want to make her disappear. 

The Wrinkled Crown is first and foremost a book about relationships. Friends, sisters, mother/child, ruler/subject, it covers just about everything (except romance). Linny is at the center of most it. She is a determined girl who is sometimes thoughtless and impulsive, but always willing to work hard to reverse the mistakes she makes. Most of the other characters are not as well developed as she is. I got a strong sense of Sayra from the few pages she's in, but she is absent for most of the book. Elias is funny and a good foil for Linny, but I didn't feel he was as well rounded as Linny is. The characters all work together well to form a cohesive whole for the story though. There is more than one antagonist Linny has to face as she make her way through the Plain and people try to use her as an ends to their own means. These characters are shown to have strengths and flaws, but to be ultimately selfish in their goals. This is a contrast to Linny whose only wish is to saver her friend and go home. I liked how there were minor characters who helped her out in small ways as well. The unsung heroes who did little things to move her where she needed to be. 

There is an interesting twist on genre in the book. While it is very much a fantasy novel with a quest and an apparent chosen one (this is deconstructed a bit), it could also be classified as Science Fiction. The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is that the strongest theme is magic versus science. Faith versus intellect plays a huge role too. Linny with all of the magic she brings from the wrinkled hills, loves maps and the science too. She is a part of both worlds. The book is about finding a balance between the two. They are at war with each other, but do they have to be? This is by far my favorite part of the story.

This is an excellent tale of friendship and perseverance that will appeal to lovers of fantasy quests and music. 

I read an ARC made available by the publisher, Harper Children's, via Edelweiss. The Wrinkled Crown is available November 10th. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

WoW: Masks and Shadows

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace. With Carlo in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy's carriage, ride a Prussian spy and one of the most notorious alchemists in the Habsburg Empire. Already at Eszterháza is Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper sister of Prince Nikolaus's mistress. Charlotte has retreated to the countryside to mourn her husband's death. Now, she must overcome the ingrained rules of her society in order to uncover the dangerous secrets lurking within the palace's golden walls. Music, magic, and blackmail mingle in a plot to assassinate the Habsburg Emperor and Empress--a plot that can only be stopped if Carlo and Charlotte can see through the masks worn by everyone they meet. 

THERE IS SO MUCH TO LOVE. I've been wanting to feature this book for a while now, because it's currently the 2016 release I'm most excited  about. (I only see its status changing if the next book in the Queen's Thief series is announced.) Look at the cover! Read the synopsis! And it's written by Stephanie Burgis, who I know I can trust to write the best of stories.

Masks and Shadows releases on April 12, 2016