Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Dyerville Tales

When I read Juniper Berry a couple of years ago, I was excited about what future stories M.P. Kozlowsky would give us. The Dyerville Tales is just as unique and engrossing as Juniper Berry was while being incredibly different. 

I read ARC received from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

Vince Elgin is an orphan, having lost his mother and his father in a fire when he was young, but beyond that, his life hasn't been much of a fairy tale. With only a senile grandfather he barely knows to call family, Vince was remanded to a group home, where he spun fantastical stories, dreaming of the possibility that his father, whose body was never found, might one day return for him. But it's been a long time since the fire, a long time since Vince has told himself a story worth believing in.
That's when a letter arrives, telling Vince his grandfather has passed away. Vince cannot explain it, but he's convinced that if his father is somehow still alive, he'll find him at the funeral. He strikes out for his grandfather's small hometown of Dyerville carrying only one thing with him: his grandfather's journal. The journal tells a story that could not possibly be true, a story of his grandfather's young life involving witches, giants, magical books, and evil spirits. But as Vince reads on and gets closer to Dyerville, fact and fiction begin to intertwine, and Vince finds that his very real adventure may have more in common with his grandfather's than he ever could have known.

Vince uses stories to keep the hope inside of him alive. Hope for the future. His. I love this so much. It made me want to scoop him up out of the book and adopt him. Readers in the target audience will have a different reaction of course. They will be able to identify with him. Because this is how so many of us cope with the day to day of our lives, tragic or not. Vince has a lot of tragic to cope with and yet he still believes in good and that there is hope in the future. Even when he tells himself he is being silly and tries to turn cynical, he can't. And I just love that. I love that his life his harsh and he says that, but refuses to believe that's all it can be. He is a hero I was willing to go along with. Vince's story is told alongside that of his grandfather's (also named Vince). The grandfather died recently and Vince is left with a book of tales about his life as a young man. As Vince travels to his grandfather's funeral, he reads the stories. They are fantastic and unbelievable, but Vince is convinced they hold truth. They also hold interesting parallels to Vince's own life. 

Once Vince decides to leave the orphanage against the head's wishes to attend the funeral and he starts reading the book, the story moves quickly. It was a little slow before that, but I think many children will be caught at the beginning with the tale of how Vince's parents died. The tale is not a pretty one. I liked this about the book actually. Just as in Juniper Berry, Kozlowsky deals with the grim darkness of reality, but does in a way children can appreciate and respond to. There were some things about the plot that didn't entirely make sense to me and many mysteries left unexplained. But such is life. I enjoyed the parts with Vince far more than the fantastical tales of his grandfather though. I'm interested to see how others respond to this. 

This is a great story and I'm eager to share it with the kids I know. It is one I can see appealing to many of them.

I read an e-galley made available by the publisher, Walden Pond Press, via Edelweiss. The Dyerville Tales goes on sale April 22nd. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Talker 25

I was pretty excited to read Talker 25 by Joshua McCune because, well, DRAGONS. Despite futuristic-the-world-sucks novels not at all being my thing, I couldn't wait for this one. Again I say, DRAGONS. I will read anything with a dragon in it. Unfortunately this book is heavy on the life-sucks and light on the dragons. (Except when they are being tortured in horrific graphic detail.)

I read an ARC received in exchange for a fair review.

It's a high school prank gone horribly wrong-sneaking onto the rez to pose next to a sleeping dragon-and now senior Melissa Callahan has become an unsuspecting pawn in a war between Man and Monster, between family and friends and the dragons she has despised her whole life. Chilling, epic, and wholly original, this debut novel imagines a North America where dragons are kept on reservations, where strict blackout rules are obeyed no matter the cost, where the highly weaponized military operates in chilling secret, and where a gruesome television show called Kissing Dragons unites the population.

The writing in Talker 25 is almost hypnotic. I was certainly drawn into the story and it was riveting reading. When I was reading it, I was completely engaged. Dragons came to earth 15 years ago, no one knows how or why (including the dragons). Some people got killed. The government went into high security mode, locked down the population, and went on a dragon killing rampage. They are still attempting to annihilate the remaining dragons. There are groups of insurgents trying to protect the remaining dragons. The military is engaging in controlling dragons and injuring civilians in order to blame the insurgents. They've even created a war camp where they hold teens capable of telepathically communicating with the dragons to help control them. The plot is fast paced and, while purely derivative of other stories, explores some interesting themes about modern entertainment, loyalty, government power, and ethics in war. The problem is the execution of all this is incredibly muddled and this is largely due to the characters.

I'm sure that there are a lot of reviews out there that will declare Melissa as unlikeable. And she is. She is supposed to be. She is an angry, confused, lonely teen as the story opens. There's little there to like. But she is so very human and I appreciated that about her. Her character almost made me really like this, but there was too much I couldn't overlook. One of those things is that none of the character's motivations every made any sense to me, and that included Melissa's even though the story is told in first person from her point of view. This a plot heavy story, and with so much action and characters, the character development is bound to suffer. I think it is a major flaw though when the reader can't figure out why anyone is doing anything they are doing. Melissa's original hatred of the dragons was understandable. Her sudden desire to rescue a random insurgent boy (hot, of course) in the midst of a military hospital is less so. She throws some line about the dragons not being what they thought out during this scene, which I read four times to figure out where the heck that came from. I still don't know. If you ask me, she still had reason to be wary of the dragons. They aren't evil incarnate, like the government is making them out to be, but they aren't fluffy bunnies either. They are often hungry and they like to eat humans. And at this point she had no real reason to fear the military both of her parents worked for. She spends a very brief time at some dragon caves communing with a couple dragons and not liking them much still. Once she is captured by the military and sent to the camp, she suddenly becomes the dragons biggest champion. Part of this is a deep-seated desire to not be broken, which I can appreciate. And it turns out the government is evil incarnate. They are killing innocent people, torturing dragons, and being all around horrifically cruel and villainous. And for the life of my I can't figure out WHY. I know power corrupts and all that, but the villainy here is almost cartoonish and a bit excessive. In books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, I understood the government's motivations. One of my major complaints about modern books of this sort, is this. I can't figure out why the governments even want to be doing what they are doing, and this book suffers greatly from that flaw.

Another issue I have is how gruesomely detailed the violence and torture scenes are. You can write scenes of great impact that leave the reader chilled and horrified without going into gruesome detail. (I offer as evidence chapter three of The Queen of Attolia and all of Code Name Verity.) In fact, I am often MORE impacted by descriptions that leave more to the imagination. I have a very good imagination. And when violence is this descriptive I simply start to shut down. 

Reading Talker 25 was rather like experiencing a video game to me. And I didn't particularly enjoy the experience. I'm sure there will be readers out there who will and won't have the same issues I do, but I can't really recommend this without serious reservations.

Content Note: graphic violence, strong language, sexual references, may be a trigger for those who have suffered sexual assault or abuse

I read an ARC received from the publisher, Greenwillow Books, via Edelweiss. Talker 25 is on sale April 22. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Islands of Chaldea

The Islands of Chaldea is the last novel from Diana Wynne Jones. Almost finished when she died and completed by her sister, it is sad to think that it the last time we will get a peek into her vast and varied imagination. However, I am MUCH HAPPIER with this as her final book than I was with Earwig and the Witch being her final. While not as wonderful as my favorite DWJ books, it is still very good. And a not as a good as the best DWJ is still far superior to almost everything else.

This is a review of an ARC received from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

Aileen comes from a long line of magic makers, and her Aunt Beck is the most powerful magician on Skarr. But Aileen's magic has yet to reveal itself, even though she is old enough and it should have, by now. When Aileen is sent over the sea on a mission for the King, she worries that she'll be useless and in the way. A powerful (but mostly invisible) cat changes all of that-and with every obstacle Aileen faces, she becomes stronger and more confident, until her magic blooms. 

Aileen is the next in a long line of Wise Women. She is supposed to have magic and power, but she messes up her Initiation and is left wondering if she is bound to be a disappointment. This is hard for her living in the shadow of her Aunt Beck, who is highly powerful and a strong, decisive, no-nonsense personality. Aileen is smart and resourceful. She pays attention. And even though she feels inferior at times, she uses these situations as an opportunity to learn. When Beck is taken out of commission and unable to lead their expedition, Aileen rises to the occasion and truly comes into her own. She must think quickly and have much courage, and is a truly great heroine. The cast of supporting characters is as diverse and quirky as one would expect from a Jones novel. On the quest with Aileen and her aunt are a prince, a boy exiled from his land, a priest, a parrot, and a strangely magical ugly cat. I loved every single one of them, their interactions, and the dynamic of the group. Aileen and Ogo (exiled boy) are my favorites, while the others provided a good deal of comedy relief. Relief sometimes needed as the group encounters more than one Queen who wishes them ill will, a ship captain who doesn't seem to care whether they survive the voyage or not, cultural differences that almost see them arrested more than once, and finally the confrontation with a villain willing to destroy the world to gain power over it. Good good stuff.

The Islands of Chaldea are varied and the inhabitants of each have different cultures and norms, but they are all connected. You can see the influences of Scotland, Ireland, and England in them but they are their own places as well. The world-building is excellent as always and comes with no explanation. They are an experience and the reader does experience them thoroughly as the intrepid group of heroes makes their way through them in an attempt to reach the one blocked island that has been separated from the rest by a barrier. It is a fascinating tale and one that moves quickly. I did thing some things at the end were a bit rushed and could have used more explanation. (How things resolved in Prince Ivar's situation for one. That was a bit abrupt.) For the most part though I was delighted with the story from beginning to end. It is Aileen's story above all and I love how everything worked out for her. 

Fans of DWJ are not going to be able to resist this one, nor should they try. I was nervous going in, but that was soon replaced with joy and delight as I sank into the engaging and fun story.

I read an e-galley made available via the publisher, Greenwillow Books, on Edelweiss. The Islands of Chaldea is available for purchase on April 22. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

WOW: The Perilous Sea

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

fter spending the summer away from each other, Titus and Iolanthe (still disguised as Archer Fairfax) are eager to return to Eton College to resume their training to fight the Bane. Although no longer bound to Titus by a blood oath, Iolanthe is more committed than ever to fulfilling her destiny—especially with the agents of Atlantis quickly closing in.
Soon after arriving at school, though, Titus makes a shocking discovery, one that makes him question everything he previously believed about their mission. Faced with this devastating realization, Iolanthe is forced to come to terms with her new role, while Titus must choose between following his mother's prophecies—and forging a divergent path to an unknowable future.

Let's take a moment and admire that cover first. The colors are beautiful and that is a DRAGON MADE FROM WATER. How gorgeous is that?

I read The Burning Sky last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fun fantasy, and we don't have nearly enough fun fantasy. I have a feeling that things will get darker and harder in this volume. It is the second in a trilogy after all, but I think it will still be fun. I love this world and the characters and can not wait to read this one when it comes out on August 26, 2014. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Last Best Kiss

Claire LaZebnik is the most amazing at Jane Austen retellings. There is not anyone else who can do them quite like she can. She adapts these stories into a modern teen setting so well. Yes, she makes some changes in doing that, but they are necessary changes and I personally adore what she does with them. The Last Best Kiss is her latest, a retelling of Persuasion, and it is excellent. What makes it so excellent is not only the decent update of Jane Austen it is, but as always LaZebnik has again created a story that is appealing and relatable to teen readers who may have never read Austen or even know this is a retelling.

I read an ARC received from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

Anna Eliot is tired of worrying about what other people think. After all, that was how she lost the only guy she ever really liked, Finn Westbrook.
Now, three years after she broke his heart, the one who got away is back in her life.
All Anna wants is a chance to relive their last kiss again (and again and again). But Finn obviously hasn’t forgotten how she treated him, and he’s made it clear he has no interest in having anything to do with her.
Anna keeps trying to persuade herself that she doesn’t care about Finn either, but even though they’ve both changed since they first met, deep down she knows he’s the guy for her. Now if only she can get him to believe that, too....

Of all Austen's novels, Persuasion probably lends itself best to being reworked into a high school setting. When in our lives are we ever more persuadable than when we are young teens? True some people never grow out of that, but most of us hit our low point there. Anna does. She is in 9th grade and wants nothing more than to be accepted by her friends. Her family life is terrible and school is the only place she is not alone. Finn fills her life with joy and fun. She adores him, but is too afraid to stand up for him and what she feels for him. Finn has good reason to be angry at her. (Better than his original counterpart did if you ask me.) She did embarrass and hurt him for no better reason than being afraid of what others might think of her. When he moves back during senior year, however, he is much cuter and less nerdy. The nerd is still there, but he lets that part of him out far less. I love that when it does escape it is usually in relation to Anna and something she has done to set it off. And she loves that part of him and wants to see it more. Their story is adorable for what it is even without knowledge of the original. I really liked Anna and how she tried to make amends, knows she did something truly wrong, and attempts to move on. She is still fixated on Finn, but it is not in an unhealthy or overly emotional way. As for Finn...well. He is exactly the sort of boy I always liked in high school. (The sort of boy I married even.) Let's just say I liked him lots. The supporting cast of characters are all truly well done too. The group of friends Anna and Finn have are fantastic. They are all very different but they have a great rapport and the banter between them all is wonderful. Lily (who is the Louisa counterpart) can be obnoxious, but the reasons for that become clear and she isn't that way simply because she is Anna's competition for Finn. 

The plot follows along the same basic lines as Persuasion. I do like that we saw some of Anna and Finn's freshman year relationship and the person he was before she embarrassed him. The whole "accident" scene makes far more sense in this context as well. While I liked seeing the connections from this plot to the original, it is one that can be enjoyed for itself without knowledge of the original novel. It is a story relatable to teens in so many ways: societal pressure, fears of the future, stress about college, and the family and friendship issues that plague everyone. In addition it is just a delightful romance. I had so much fun reading it. I seriously hope LaZebnik continues these.

Content Note: There is some discussion of sex, some underage drinking, and illegal drug use.

I read an e-galley made available by the publisher, Harper Teen, via Edelweiss. The Last Best Kiss is on sale April 22.