Quick Reviews from the Underpaid

There is a simple reason why I have not been posting more often folks, and it is this. I currently am working two jobs, retail no less, throughout the holidays. Perhaps longer. I am also planning a wedding in January which means that I have to do things like fill out invitations, apartment hunt, make doctor appointments, and about a million other things.

With all that being said, my reading habit is still chugging away nicely, or at least I am reading more books in a month than most people do in a year. Because I cannot do the full length reviews that I would like to do because of my limited time, I am going to provide you with an abbreviated review for all the books I have read recently in one post.

 Life Happens Next by Terry Trueman
A sequel to Stuck in Neutral, this book picks up right were the first left off. After surviving his father's mercy killing because of simple phone call, Shawn prepares himself for his life ahead. But what kind of life can a guy have when everyone thinks he is a vegetable? Stuck within his own body, unable to tell anyone how smart and funny and annoyed his is, Shawn must accept the life he has and live it as best he can. A tiny book, just like the first, this book still left me with many questions. Shawn has a really great family, his siblings basically acting as if he can understand and interact with him. I wanted more than that though, and definitely more from a sequel. I desperately wanted someone to take Shawn somewhere and for someone to figure out that he is locked in his own body. That some kind of medical science would have figured out a way to make his twitching finger be able to interact with the world. I know this is possible because we wouldn't have The Diving Bell and the Butterfly without such knowledge. Not a bad book, but I didn't really see the point in reading it if nothing new happens.

 Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Set in the future, everyone lives, works, and plays in the virtual reality world called the Oasis. When the creator dies, leaving behind a fortune and a hidden Easter Egg within the Oasis, the game is on. But there are some who will do anything to win the game, and Wade Watts quickly learns that some virtual worlds can become very real. Despite a rough first chapter, which is full of authorial intrusions, this is one awesome book. It is perfect for geeks, sci-fi freaks, and anyone who grew up in the 80's.

The Navigator and City of Time by Eion McNamee
One day the world around Owen shifts oddly: Time begins to flow backwards, and the world and family he knew disappear. Time can only be set right when the Resisters vanquish their ancient enemies, the Harsh. Time travel is a difficult subject to tackle, and sadly this series really struggled with the concept. Full of holes and logical fallacies, I was left feeling confused, as if the author had simply skipped a couple of sentences. Owen, the main character, is wholly forgettable and flat, and despite some nice action scenes, I was never fully engrossed in the story.

 The Diviners by Libba Bray
Evie O'Neill has been shipped off to New York City to live with her boring Uncle (Unc to Evie), who runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult"--also known by locals as "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies." NYC is one glamor filled thrill from the speakeasies to the movies, that is until a string of occult-based murders comes to light and Evie and her Unc begin to investigate. Evie may be able to help find the killer, but how do you catch a ghost? Set against the backdrop of 1920's New York, The Diviners is a well told, terribly creepy, and poetically spun tale. Libba Bray, although a bit wordy at times, can craft a sentence so that it reads like a song. But beware, not only is this book occultish in the extreme, but it also sometimes reads like a history lesson. I promise you will walk away from this one with a chill and a firm grasp on 1920s vernacular.

 Let's Go For a Drive by Mo Willems
I love this book! This is my favorite Elephant and Piggie book yet! Mo Willems does so much with so few words and these two characters are so expressive. Seriously, buy this one for the child in your life...or the child within.

Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson
When T-Boom introduces Laurel Daneau to meth, she immediately falls under its spell. Calling it her moon, Laurel quickly sinks into a spiral of addiction in which death seems like the only out. With the help of an artist named Moses and her friend Kaylee, Laurel is able to see beyond the moon, to a place where her ghosts will no longer haunt her. Deeply moving, Woodson immerses her reader into the world of addiction that is so terribly awful and brilliantly hopeful. Never feeling didactic, Kaylee's story impacts on a level that demands understanding and a new way of looking at those suffering from addiction.

Common Trope Traps: A Reader's Guide for Writers

So the title of this post is a little misleading since I am not simply a reader, but also a writer. Yet, it is from the many books I have read over the past few months that fueled the need for such a post. There are, of course, a plethora of cliches and overly misused tropes in all fiction, however the literature for children's books, specifically books geared toward the middle grade and teen crowd have a set all their own. So without further ado, I present:

Seven Overused Tropes in Young Adult and Middle Grade Fiction: (in no special order):

1. Redheads
We all know the ever famous redhead, Anne of Green Gables, but what about these fiery beauties (I'm a readhead so I can say that), makes for such an interesting character trait? My theory is this. Redheads only make  4% of the American population. Therefore if an author wants to create a character that stands out, one who is different, but doesn't want an ethnic minority, they can always use a redhead. Who are the most recent additions to this classification? There is Clary (City of Bones), Amy (Across the Universe), Fire (Fire), Quincie Morris (Tantalize), Bianca Piper (The Duff), Ellie (Angelfire), Eve (Eve). I think you get the point. Interesting note,  besides Ron Weasley, famous wizarding friend of a certain Harry Potter, ginger males are rather rare.

2. Self-Examination by Mirror
When was the last time you stood in front of the mirror and, in your head, began describing yourself? Your eyes, your nose, hair color, face shape. Anyone? This speaks to me of lazy writing. There are so many deft ways to insert such information, creative and beautiful ways that reveal more than just looks. "When she was little, Lana had wished she could just tell people she was adopted, for everyone in her family had soft honey colored hair, except her. Instead, Lana's jet black hair screamed to the world, my mom had an affair." An example that I hope makes a point.

3. The Awkward Uncoordinated Kid
I guess the cool kid would be a boring story, right? I mean, every single kid out there can relate to being the awkward uncoordinated kid. The trouble with this is that, although not everyone can be cool and coordinated, they can't all be awkward either. This may be a case of writers writing what they know, because to be honest, of all the writers I know (you guys correct me if I am wrong) many admit to being the socially awkward teenager that has become the staple of every teen flick out there. I myself was the bookworm, and it wasn't until my college years that I discovered rock climbing and hiking. Perhaps for my next book I should consider writing a character who is actually considered cool.

4. Realizing You Are Crying
What is this wet stuff upon my face? Why does water leak from my eyes? Unless you are a robot or a child who has never cried before, it is biologically strange for a person not to realize they are crying. Yes, the occasional allergy or sneezing fit does hit you unexectadly, but in the middle of a great disaster in which someone dies, would you truly be surprised by tears?

5. The Smile That Doesn't Quite Reach the Eyes
This is how we know that people are bad or lying, right? Admittedly, I am not the most observant person on the whole, however I wouldn't even know how to go about noticing if someones smile didn't reach their eyes. How can you tell if their eyes aren't smiling? Tyra Banks always goes on and on about this very thing with would-be models, but honestly, I can't tell the different between her "smiling with her eyes" and without. They look the same to me. Also, I would assume that a psychopath would be somewhat good at hiding the fact that they are in fact bad.

6. The Didactic Authorial Intrusion
I am aware that this has always been an issue, but bear with me here. I am not talking about the authorial intrusion in which the author wants children to learn how to share or not be a bully. No, the didactic authorial insutrusions I refer to go on a much deeper, sometimes even spiritual level. I get that sometimes it is difficult for an author to separate out their political, religious, or philosophical viewpoints from those of their characters, but it is important that the author question their decision to insert a four paragraph mantra about how the character is an atheist, when it has absolutely nothing to do with the story and never comes up again. If a character spends any length of time ruminating on something then one should only hope that this may be important information for the reader to know. If it is important to the story and the character, add it. If not, use facebook for your rantings. That's what everyone else does.

7. The Terribly Abused Child With No Psychological Damage
Kids are resiliant and human beings are often able to overcome some very terrible ordeals. The more realistic fiction, those dealing with things like death, cancer, war, and disasters never shy away from the knowledge of how terrible those things can be. Yet in the more fantastical worlds, the fact that a character would probably suffer from some serious PTSD due to the life they have lived, is ignored. After seven years of constant death threats, being abused by his relatives, and watching friends die, Harry Potter would definitely be in need of some serious help. On the lighter side, think of it this way. Ariel from The Little Mermaid would probably be considered a hoarder. Charlie Brown is clearly clinically depressed. The story doesn't have to be about mental illness issues, but it wouldn't it be interesting if more authors acknowledged that their characters may need someone to talk to. And for goodness sake...stop sending Harry Potter back to his abusive relatives.

Every Day Book Review

Every Day by David Levithan

Every day for as long as A can remember, it has woken up as a different person, hijacking that persons body and life for 24 hours. A doesn't mind so much anymore, having developed a series of rules in order to not disrupt the lives of the other teens too much. Content to live on as this thing, an it with no true past or future, A meets Rhiannon. One day with Rhiannon though and A can't get enough, willing to break its own rules in order to be with her. But what will happen when A tells her the truth. How can you love someone who is a different person every day?

I admit that I resisted this book. Not being a huge fan of romance and given that the main crux of this story is this girl Rhiannon, I was sure I would hate it. Due to the fascinating concept, I fond the story engaging while I was reading up, however it doesn't stand up under to much scrutiny, especially since the author offered so few answers.

The lives that A lives are fascinating. A drug addict, a pretty girl, an obese boy, a bilingual daughter of an illegal immigrant. A is neither male nor female and has learned how to cope with the eccentricities of this life, and it is this element that makes the book interesting.

Of course, the love story was ridiculous. For some reason that I cannot quite figure out, A is completely smitten with Rhiannon who is not particularly special way, which wouldn't be a big deal except that I am not even sure why A really likes her other than the fact that she is nice. In one day A falls for her so completely, developing a sixteen-year-old worthy crush of the century that, like most teen relationships, is doomed to be short but full of over the top feelings.

Perhaps I sound cynical? And perhaps I am. But after seeing what love is and what love isn't, I find it fascinating that we still pander to the ridiculous romantic notions that encapsulate the romance genre and have made many a friend think that love would somehow be just like in the stories they have read and movies they have seen, leaving very little room for reality.

Lucky for Levithan, this book isn't reality so I guess we will let A get away with its crush. Interesting point, and one you may have noticed throughout this review, A is neither male nor female. I have noticed an overwhelming amount of those on goodreads however, seem to want to call A, 'he'. Talk about a weird concept that is nearly impossible to wrap your head around. 

The Daughter of Smoke & Bone Book Review

The Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

Karou is an artist, blue haired and mysterious to all her friends in Prague. How does she speak so many languages? Where does she go on her errands? And why does she draw monsters in her sketchbook?

What Karou chooses not to tell them is that she is the foster daughter of monsters, raised by Brimstone, a chimera magician who exchanges wishes for teeth. Despite her fear of him and desperate desire to know what Brimstone does with those teeth, Karou is happy with her life until she meets the beautiful, winged Seraphim, Akiva. With her world falling apart around her, Karou must delve into a past she has never known, even if she may come to regret it.

Crafted with hauntingly beautiful prose, Laini Taylor has created a Romeo & Juliet story just as passionate and fearsome as its muse. Taylor has created not just one but two worlds, the first, Prague, familiar and yet different enough for the setting to feel unique. The second, a world full of angels and demons, magic and pain, slowly unfolds throughout the book, and despite it being so alien Taylor deftly handles her world so that it too feels as real and slid as Prague.

When I began this book, I had my reservations and admit to some eye rolling when the "angels" were introduced. After all, isn't that the new thing? Angels and demons becoming almost as popular as vampires and zombies, right? Never mind that these angels, or Serpih, aren't exactly the biblical, winged creatures that tradition would have us believe. As a ardent activist against frivolous romance, I readily admit that although I thought this book was exceptionally well-done, I did find some of the romance cloying. Let me make it clear though, I hate romance stories in my action flicks so obviously a story that is taking its cues from Romeo and Juliet is not going to be that appealing to someone like me.

I would have like there to be a little less flashback/backstory. The final third of the book is almost all flashback and although I recognize its importance, I wished there had been a different way, but this in no way impedes the beauty of the book.

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone is dark, sensual, stunning, terrifying, beautiful, and Just wait until you find out what they do with all those teeth.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell Book Review

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Alex and Connor have been hearing fairy tales all their lives, but neither ever dreamed that one day they may be a part of them. Sucked into The Land of Stories, Alex and Connor must find a managerie of objects in order to escape. As they travel between kingdoms, the twins encounter witches, goblins, trolls, wolves, princesses, mermaids, and fairies all of which either hinder or help the siblings in their quest.

Ah, celebrity authors. Many celebrities have gone the way of writing children's books. Some like Emma Thompson, Julie Andrews, and Jamie Lee Curtis have written fabulous children's books that have gone well beyond any celebrity. Others like Kristi Yamaguchi, Madonna, and Jay Leno proved that some people, even when they announce they would love to write children's books, should not be allowed to. I am afraid Chris Colfer falls into the second category.

Full of over-used tropes, flat characters, strange POV shifts, terrible similes, an elementary school use of description, incredibly didactic, and a plot that lacked imagination, I feel like I should have put the book down on chapter three but felt confident that the book could only get better. How wrong I was.

Each time Colfer used a simile I found myself cringing. Like this fabulous one, "Mrs. Peters was staring at her as if she had just witnessed a gruesome rural animal give birth." Or this brilliant one, "Alex clambered up the tree faster than any animal she had ever seen in a documentary." There were many others, so many that I began talking to the book. Too often my reading was punctuated with, "You have got to be kidding me."

Alex and Connor have very little character arcs and felt so much like your classic smart kid/slacker stereotypes that it became rather boring. Alex is smart and emotional, a Hermione Granger who is even more unlikable. Far too often Alex ends up thwarting their plans because she feels the need to "experience" The Land of Stories or help the various characters they come across. Connor is the goof-off with a mouth, the comedic punctuation to the end of every line. If Alex isn't busy asking fairies about their feelings, Connor is beside her stupidly protesting having to do something that could very well save them both. At no point did these characters learn or grow.

Perhaps the worst part was the plot itself. Two children, trapped in one world can only return to the other if they find some magical items to make a spell. Instead of being full of danger and intrigue however, the story felt very much like a scavenger hunt. Once it was revealed that there were other ways to travel between the two worlds, all suspense was lost for it was clear that even if they couldn't get the objects, they could and would eventually get home. Never mind that Colfer was already working with a source material that has been done to death. Honestly, if you are going to do a fairy tale mash-up, you have got to do different, ground breaking, or at least funny.

But Chris Colfer wants us all to learn a lesson. That fairy tales all have morals and the supposed mores that we were taught are wrong. What Colfer's interpretation of the classics shows a lack of research and literary analysis. I can't even begin to go down this path of analysis without simply becoming angry at the lack of imagination and depth Colfer managed to rehash.

Here was the thing, there were a few characters who were good and whose stories I thought far more interesting than Alex and Connor's, that being the Evil Queen and Goldilocks. If Colfer had decided to write an entire story from the perspective of Goldilocks, I think it could have been good, because she was the only character with anything deep and emotionally resonant and Colfer may not be a good enough author to see it. His editor should have, but then celebrity authors often get away with far too much than your "regular" authors, the ones of non-celebrity status. Want proof? Look no further than the brilliantly (*sarcasm*) written novel by Snooki.

Drama Book Review

Drama by Raiga Telgemeier

Callie is your regular 7th grade theater junkie, working behind the scenes as a set designer and stage crew on her middle school's production of Moon Over Mississippi. Even with a limited budget, Callie is determined to create a set worthy of Broadway, complete with a canon that actually fires. If their production is going to succeed though, everyone will have to play a part.

In this second graphic novel for middle graders by Telgemeier tackles the drama world and all that it entails. Callie, with her purple locks and love to work behind the scenes is loveable and loyal. Similar to the autobiographic character that Telgemeier created in Smile, Callie is very much like Raina in a different setting. Being a Drama junkie myself, meaning theater not actual drama, this book felt very close to home.

The trials and tribulations of a 7th grader in the 21st century are not things I am familiar with however. I think this book handled it rather deftly, weaving in middle school crushes, friendships, break-ups, and other societal pressures. Callie has pretty solid self-esteem, but she is as vulnerable as any twelve-year-old.

Of course, as with any good book, there is always a bit of controversy, in Drama it is the topic of homosexuality as Callie becomes good friends with twin brothers, one of whom confesses that he is gay. In my bookstore alone, I have already had two customers complain about this particular aspect of the book as if we have control over whether a book is written or carried within a store, not that I would ever condone censorship of any kind. All that is to say, that those who dislike the image or idea of young adults being attracted to the same sex, they will very much hate this book and all that it represents. For those who encourage such topics, then you will love this one.

Either way, this is a well-done novel and I think it will create much discussion, hopefully of the productive kind.

Horten's Incredible Illusions Book Reviews

Horten's Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery, and Another Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans

With the discovery of his Uncle's magic tricks, Stuart (who is ten but looks younger) and his friend April are sad their adventure ended, that is until they find a piece of paper and a six pointed star hidden within one of the tricks. The paper speaks of a will, his Uncle's will that is hidden within the six different magic tricks. Once again, April and Stuart must follow the clues, a few of which, are rather dangerous in nature.

I was absolutely enchanted by Horten's Miraculous Mechanism, and am pleased to report that Horten's Incredible Illusions has just as many great puzzles, capers, mysteries, and adventure as the first. April, May, and June, Stuart's nosy triplet neighbors, play a larger part in this venture. Stuart and his dad grow closer, despite his father's constant need to use polysyllabic words. And the stakes feel just as big, although I was happy that it was the magic itself that posed danger rather than another "baddie".

This is a short, quick read, but I think young readers who love adventure and mystery with just a bit of magic, are going to love this series, and although both end very well, I am hoping to see another one soon.

Forge Book Review

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

After escaping a British prison in New York City with the help of his good friend Isabelle, Curzon knows they must head somewhere where they will be safe. When Isabelle refuses to head north though, wanting to find her sister in South Carolina, Curzon leaves her. Through a series of mishaps and lies, Curzon ends up enlisting in the Revolutionary army at Valley Forge until the end of the war. But life in Valley Forge is very difficult with men starving, dying from want of clothes and blankets, and a collection illnesses that only come from poor conditions. Curzon is willing to live under the army's yoke, but when his old master comes back into his life, Curzon must face the reality of being a black man in 1777.

I'll admit right now that I did not realize this was a sequel to Chains. As I have not read the aforementioned book, I was obviously a little confused at the beginning of Forge. Anderson does not feel the need (nor should she) to go back and explain what happened in the previous book nor who Isabelle is to Curzon. The beginning moved very quickly, so quickly in fact that I wasn't entirely sure what had happened. Curzon is out of prison and then he is wandering the woods after some kind of fight with Isabelle. There are some scenes that feel like flashbacks, but turn out to be in the present. Then we are at Valley Forge.

Here's the thing about Valley Forge, if you remember your Revolutionary War history...nothing much happened there. It was a bit cold and people died to be sure, mostly from being ill-equipped to survive the winter, but no wars were fought. I found the first half of the book to be rather ponderous since nothing terribly plot worthy happens while Curzon is living with his regiment. There is, of course, a bullying Sergeant, but there are always those in these types of books so it didn't exactly feel extraordinary.

Enter Bellingham, Curzon's former master. This is where the book takes a drastic turn and feels like a completely different book and frankly it felt a little forced. The reintroduction of Isabelle felt a little to convenient. Could there not have been some other girl for Curzon to connect with? Did it have to be Isabelle? Even the romance felt strange and forced, for if Curzon truly loved her, would he have left her?

The book itself is a fine example of historical fiction and I believe young readers will learn a lot from it, as long as they can slog through the first half.

Harry Potter and the Picky Reader

 I am a veracious reader and have worked at bookstores for exactly 12 years now. (on and off) This means that often I see new books the day they come out and get to read them before anyone has even begun to buzz about the book. This was the case with Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone in 1998. I saw it on the shelf and thought, yay, a new fantasy novel for kids. This was in the time when children's fantasy was rare and often overlooked. For most publishers, fantasy was a risk as J.K. Rowling will attest seeing as she was rejected many times based on the genre alone.

My initial thoughts were something like this: Oh, another boarding school book, this time with a fantasy twist. How kind of her to rip off all my favorite authors. Roald Dahl, J.R.R. Tolkein, Jill Murphy, Diane Wynn Jones, Terry Pratchett, T.H. White, and Lloyd Alexander just to name a few.

The writing was nothing to write home about. The plot predictable. The end? Really? Love is the reason why Voldermort couldn't touch him? Love?

As the book gained momentum, I was completely miffed by the fanatical attention the book was receiving. It wasn't terribly original and although not a bad read, wasn't the greatest book ever written. What was going on here? When the second book came out, I was shocked by how formulaic it was. Harry stays with his terrible Aunt and Uncle, meets up with friends, goes to school to solve a mystery (the mystery being whatever the title is), which he will in fact solve (because why are we reading), and Voldermort is thwarted, but not in a way that makes him gone for good. So naturally, after making it partway through the third book, I abandoned the series entirely. I barely have enough time to read the series I do like, formulaic or not, and I didn't feel that Harry Potter deserved much more of my time.

Fast forward to the present. I recently bought a new car with one of those newfangled CD players in it, which now allows me to listen to audio books. Perhaps because I don't feel like it is an extra amount of time suck since I am going to be in the car anyway, I thought that perhaps I would give Harry Potter another read...errr, listen.

It should now be pointed out that since I read the first book I have worked in bookstores for over a decade, obtained a Bachelor's degree in Publishing, worked as an intern at Children's book publisher, and then got an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adult. Perhaps you are thinking that all this education has made me cynical, like the film students you go to school and leave with an extreme dislike of all things Hollywood and a love for Wes Anderson films, but no. Instead this has allowed me to look at stories in a different way, to appreciate them for what they are, revel in their differences, and enjoy them when I can.

Harry Potter is interesting in the way of beginnings. Unlike most children's books, we begin in the head of Mr. Dursley, an adult character.  How odd, considering how little parental or adult characters are often non-existent or at the very least, on the sidelines, and yet Rowling chose to begin her book in his head. And it works. It is important that the reader understand the Dursleys before they ever get to meet Harry so that your sympathies already lie with the child based solely on their "muggleness".

Since this is the just the beginning of the book, I began to wonder what else I may have missed having read the book with no idea as to writing craft, plot development, characterization, theme, etc.

For example: In the movies the three children all have to solve a series of mysteries, using magic or whit, to get to the philosopher's stone. The three trials are so conveniently attuned to the three children's talents that it seems like Dumbledore wanted them to find it. However, in the book there were five trials and these had to do with the teachers various strengths and had nothing to do with the students. I had forgotten this part of the book and was pleased to see that things weren't as convenient as they were made to appear in the film.

That said, there are still things that bug me. The story is still not that original and agonizingly formulaic. Because this is a fantasy, we allow Harry to get away with a lot on a psychological level. I don't believe any child raised in such an abusive home would be nearly so well balanced as Harry is. And this one may be considered sacrilegious, but I don't think Harry is a very good wizard. There is this line where Hermione tells Harry, "Me? Books and cleverness? There are more important things: friendship and bravery. And Harry, just be careful." Yet it seems to me that Hermione has books, cleverness, friendship, and bravery, two of these things Harry is lacking which in my book makes him a bad student and since the only thing they are studying is how to be a wizard, perhaps he should take a cue from Hermione. At least, she is the only one I would trust to actually know the proper spells when we needed them.

All of this is to say, that I think I enjoyed Harry Potter more the second time around, but still have some of the same issues with it that I had when I read the book in 1998. I currently have the audio book of Chamber of Secrets and am hoping that I will be surprised by it as well and perhaps I too will fall in love with a series that captured the hearts of so many, although there may be no hope for this picky reader.

Kids of Kabul Book Review

Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-ending War by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books
May 15, 2012

From Goodreads: (because I can't really say it any better) Since its publication in 2000, hundreds of thousands of children all over the world have read and loved The Breadwinner. By reading the story of eleven-year-old Parvana and her struggles living under the terror of the Taliban, young readers came to know the plight of children in Afghanistan.

But what has happened to Afghanistan’s children since the fall of the Taliban in 2001? In 2011, Deborah Ellis went to Kabul to find out. She interviewed children who spoke about their lives now. They are still living in a country torn apart by war. Violence and oppression still exist, particularly affecting the lives of girls, but the kids are weathering their lives with courage and optimism. The two dozen or so children featured in the book range in age from ten to seventeen. Many are girls Deb met through projects funded by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, the organization that is supported by royalties from The Breadwinner Trilogy. Parvana’s Fund provides grants towards education projects for Afghan women and children, including schools, libraries and literacy programs.

The children in this book, wowed me with their unrelenting optimism in the face of so much tragedy. There is 14-year-old Faranoz, whose father is dead, and whose older brother takes care of her family but doesn't encourage her schooling. Even so, Faranoz goes to a meeting room with other women and has learned to read. She says, "I hope he[my brother] lets me go to a proper school one day because I like to be around books and I would like to be a doctor one day. I think I would be a good doctor. What else can I do with so much intelligence!" My heart leapt at her optimism and grew sad at the prospect that this may always be just a dream for this little girl. 

Sharifa, also 14, has a father who is an opium addict and no longer lives with them, making their life very difficult. Sharifa states, "I have decided not to be married. I want to be a doctor, and I don't want a husband that I have to take care of. I want to do good work and make a better life for me and my family." 

There are many stories from Parwais who works at the Kubal Museum, where he has learned the value of history, to Palwasha, who plays soccer with the Afghan Women's National Football Team, to Shaharazad, the daughter of a woman Afghan parliament member.

It was hard to read these stories, one after the other. The loss and devastation that war has left behind has shaped these children, yet within them they each carry a tiny spot of hope. Ellis helps create a picture of Afghanistan through the eyes of the next generation and how truly beautiful they are.

The Theory of Everything Book Review

The Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson
Peachtree Publications
October 1, 2012

In the months since her best friend Jamie died in a tragic accident, Sarah Jones has been unable to move on, caught within a spiral of self-loathing, guilt, and depression, that she cannot climb out of. Her parents, brother, friends, heck even her boyfriend Stenn, are ready for her to move on, but if they knew what had happened that day, would they be able to? With everyone breathing down her neck and threatening to take away everything she holds dear, Sarah begins the arduos task of picking up the pieces of her shattered life. Nothing is easy or fair though, as she has learned, and Sarah will have to confront some people, lose some friends, and make new ones before she can truly come to terms with Jaimie's death.

As I started to read this novel, I had this very weird deja vu feeling that only grew more pronounced as I continued. At first I chalked it up to being tired, but after guessing a major plot point twist it became clear that I have read this particular novel before. This is impossible though, seeing as the book won't even be published until October, right? Wracking my brain, I realized that it is highly possible that I may have read this manuscript as a submission while interning at Candlewick Press. I cannot say why Candlewick didn't choose to accept this book or what my comments were on it, and I didn't have much say in the acceptance process, but here is fact, Peachtree managed to get a real gem with this one

The Theory of Everything is an absolutely beautiful portrait of grief and how different everyone handles it. Sarah is snarky and angsty, getting into trouble in an effort to feel something, but forgetting that she is not the only person who misses Jamie. Her pain and depression were never tiresome, especially as Sarah begins her journey to reconnect with her world. As Sarah is a bit of an unreliable narrator, it was easy to dislike her parents who felt so unsympathetic or Roy, a local Christmas Tree farmer, as a crazy coot, but Sarah does eventually see these people as how they really are.

Each chapter was illustrated with different charts explaining her various opinions be it sex, drugs, boyfriends, depression, death, and truth. Some were humuorous and some took far too much deciphering than I was willing to figure it out. Other than that minor drawback, The Theory of Everything is a very solid book that captures the aftermath of death with all its downs and ups.

Minnie McClary Speaks Her Mind Book Review

Minnie McClary Speaks Her Mind by Valerie Hobbs
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
August 7, 2012

Sixth-grader, Minnie McClary, is the new girl at school, a bright student who is searching for answers. Why did her dad become a whistle blower at work? Why is her Uncle building a helicopter in the basement? Is her Uncle crazy? Why did her brother become so mean when he turned thirteen? When Minnie's language arts class gets a new unconventional teacher, Minnie is encouraged to ask her questions, but terrified of what will happen if she does. While Minnie and her classmate Amira adore Miss Marks, others are questioning Miss Marks' teaching methods and more. Minnie soon finds herself in the middle of a heated debate that will require her to not only ask questions, but to seek the answers, no matter how hard they may be.

Hobbs has managed to squeeze a little bit of everything into this middle grade novel, making it cleverly didactic and sometimes a little too charming.  There is the war hero Uncle living in the basement suffering from PTSD. Her new friend Amira who is Muslim and wears a headscarf and deals with prejudice every day. Her father who lost his job while doing what was right, resulting in the family downsizing and her parents continual fighting. A community of parents who dislike Miss Marks based on the fact that she wears jeans while teaching, has piercings, and a tattoo on her ankle...a tattoo of a rainbow.

Minnie is dealing with a lot and I imagine there are many kids out there dealing with many situations like hers. An unemployed parent, changes in the family dynamic, prejudice and bullying at school and online, bodily and psychological changes, a crisis of belief, and a crushing need to get answers, to change the world. Minnie's fears felt very real to me and I enjoyed her path of self-discovery.

On the other hand, the reader can't miss the "messages" Hobbs is throwing out like bricks. This resulted in a teacher who was far too perfect, a teacher who I think most teachers wish they were like, but I imagine many are not. It made me wonder if this wasn't one of those books where teachers would love it and kids might like it. After all, what progressive parent or teacher wouldn't want their kids to read a book with such a wholesome message? On that note, I think parents who are like some of the ones at the school board meeting portrayed at the end of the novel, will absolutely hate it and want their children to avoid this book at all costs. Hint: These are the kind of parents who ban certain books from being read and want teachers to be fired because they may or may not be gay.

Minnie does, in the end, speak her mind, but it all felt too much like the end was wrapped in a bow. Everything worked it, everyone got better, all the relationships improves, and although the message was a hopeful one, it wasn't very realistic. This one is definitely one book that I think adults will like a whole lot more than kids will.

The Kill Order Book Review

The Kill Order by James Dashner
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
August 14, 2012

In this prequel to The Maze Runner series, Dashner gives his readers a glimpse into the world after the devastating sun flares, but before WICKED and the Flare.

Trina and Mark have managed to survive together, fleeing a ravaged New York City and settling in the mountains of North Carolina. However, surviving the sun flares may have been the least of their worries, when a ship flies over their make-shift village and introduces a disease to its inhabitants, one that quickly becomes airborne and causes the victim to lose their mind in the most terrible ways imaginable. Suspicious and searching for answers, Mark, Trina, and Alec and their friends make their way to an underground bunker. It soon becomes clear that the disease, now called the Flare, is out of control and infecting everyone, even them. Yet, there may be hope, as long as Mark can stay sane long enough to go through with their plans.

Set thirteen years before The Maze Runner trilogy, The Kill Order was roller coaster zombie adventure without the zombies. Watching the characters descend into madness was enlightening, but also frustrating, in a good way. Spolier Alert: If you have read the trilogy, you know that there is no cure for the Flare, so it was terrible to hear the characters speak of possible cures and know that there isn't one. This degradation of the mind offered a suspense that left me wondering until the end if they would be able to accomplish the impossible before the Flare ravaged their minds. This book is not lacking in action that is for sure.

The Kill Order offered a few answers, but left me with a lot more questions. Why use darts to distribute an illness that by all accounts was unstable to begin with? Who in their right mind, after millions of people all over the world have died, would think that the world needed more population control? Why is everyone they meet outside of their little group, so terrible?

This last question is a rather philosophical question, one that can be raised after reading a number of these dystopian sci-fi books. Typically, only the main characters are good and the majority of people, whether they be young or old, are liars, cheaters, murderers, manipulators, out for selfish gain, or cannibals...or all of those things rolled into one. What does this say about what we think of humanity? At the very least, what does this say about how these authors view humanity? Are we saying that only a select handful of "good people" will survive a disaster? Are good people somehow weak and unable to fend for themselves under terrible circumstances? Is this an American idea? I ask this last question because I have seen the footage and read the stories of those who survived the Japanese tsunami. There were so many people who helped others, led them to safety, even put their own lives on the line for others. More importantly, it wasn't a small handful. I have seen it with other disasters too. I find it hard to believe that in just a few short days, the world would be full of people who would kill you as soon as look at you. Sure, there are some people who do not handle emergency situations well, the sheeple as it were, but history has proven that good and bad people do manage to survive terrible conditions, and a lot of them manage to do it with their morals intact.

An action-packed prequel that is both well-written and maddening, and I do mean that literally and figuratively.

On the Day I Died: Stories From the Grave Book Review

On the Day I Died: Stories From the Grave by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade
July 10, 2012

Late for curfew, Mike is racing home, only to be stopped by a girl who seems to have lost her way. What seems like a simple drop-off and mother avoidance quickly turns into a ghost tale of epic proportions. Set in White Cemetery, a graveyard just outside of Chicago, this is a set of ghost stories that span throughout Chicago's fascinating past including the World's Fair, the Great Depression, Al Capone, and the local insane asylum. Ten ghosts tell Mike their terrifying tales in hopes that by telling their stories, they can 'move on' and perhaps Mike can learn something from them.

Fleming weaves together a chilling series of ghost stories borrowing from the literary and the folk. Each short story created an interesting anthology that I think many young readers will enjoy. One story relies heavily on The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs, telling the story of a love lorn Lily who will do anything to see her beau again, alive or dead. There were homages paid to Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen King, and Alfred Hitchcock. Although some of the story elements were borrowed, Fleming really made them her own, giving depth and feeling to many a story that usually begins with, "Once there was a girl..." The histocracy gave the book a focus and I learned a number of things about Chicago that I never knew.

I would say that although the cover has a cartoony look, based on the content, this one is for the 11 and up readers.

This book will leave you with more than a few goosebumps and it is not recommended that it be read at night, and definitely not with a flashlight under the covers.

UnWholly Book Review

UnWholly by Neal Shusterman

People can no longer turn a blind eye to unwinding. After their revolt at the Happy Jack Harvest Camp, Lev, Connor, and Risa are trying to make society question the morality of unwinding troublesome teens for tissue, organs, and other parts. But how do you take down a practice that has become such a source of revenue for the government and those who work on the black market? Worse yet, what do you do when the very people who are supposed to protect kids are making things like Cam, a Frankenstein monster, made up of over 100 kids who were unwound. As each of the kids struggles against the system, each is searching for the humanity within themselves.

This second Unwind installment, like many sequels, is not the "tear down of the system" that you so badly yearn for. Instead this book is a character study, a journey into the psyche of Lev, Risa, Connor, and Cam along with Hayden, Starkey, and Miracolina as they become the people they need to be in order to lead. Can Lev really live up to the saint-like following he has accrued among those who are tithed? Is Connor really the right leader for the AWOL unwinds? Will a young man who has been abandoned by two families be able to create a new darker one of his own? Can a person hold their values while being forced to display the opposite of what they believe? And what happens when a monster has thought and feelings that can't be ignored no matter what he is made of?

This did make for a less fast-paced story, but I found myself staying up late to finish reading one chapter and then another, unable to put it down, desperate to return to each character.

The thing that I liked about Unwind, was the constant feeling of repulsion, which is obviously what Shusterman was aiming for. I still find it completely unrealistic, especially the "storking" where people leave their unwanted children on doorsteps. I feel even more so with this book as we never actually meet any storked kids whose parents actually like or want them. I felt like storking was basically this society's way of getting people to pay for the upkeep of kids until they were old enough to be unwound. What kind of bond or love would ever be created? Worse yet, instead of preparing their children for unwinding, parents often have the Juvies come pick up their kids in the middle of the night, their shame written on their face. This entire world that Shusterman has created felt very Spartan in nature. 

Just like the first, UnWholly is a well-done dystopian sci-fi with some great characters who are believable, even if the world isn't sometimes.

City of Bones Book Review

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Clary Fray is like every other fifteen-year-old in New York City. She goes to teen clubs, hangs out with her best friend Simon, and obsessed over her next cup of coffee. Then, Clary witnesses a bizarre murder, in which three tattoo-covered make someone literally disappear. Even more bizarre is that only Clary can see them. This is only the beginning as Clary gets sucked into the dark world of Shadowhunters, warriors who are bidden to rid the world of demons. When Clary's mother is taken, Clary finds herself allying with Jace, a beautiful guy with a jerk personality. Clary must discover what anyone would want with a mundane like her and her mother and more importantly, why she has the Sight. 

I really enjoyed the pacing of this book, the massive amounts of action scenes made me happy. Clary is smart and clever and holds her own against the uber cool Shadowhunters. She never lets Jace walk over her. She may take some of the revelations a little too well, at least not the way I imagine any fifteen-year old would, but then that may have taken away from her coolness. Or added more depth. Either way, we will never know. I loved that her best friend Simon was brought back into the picture as he added a certain amount of levity to the story, especially considering he spent a fourth of the book as a rat.

Despite loving the supernatural action, I'm afraid the plot is not terribly original. Generally, I am a well-behaved reader. I don't try to solve the mystery or figure out the end or guess where the plot is going, but sometimes authors just make it too easy. The twists were rather predictable and I have a preference for being surprised. Of course, there has to be a love triangle, which seems to be the YA go-to these days and I find it incredibly cloying, but there seems to be no avoiding it.

If I have time and can get them on audio book, I think I may continue the series, but I won't be gobbling them down like I do The Maze Runner series or Bloody Jack.

BZRK Book Review

BZRK by Michael Grant

Sadie is a billionaire orphan after the tragic death of her father and brother in a plane crash into a stadium that she happened to be sitting in. Surviving the deadly accident, Sadie is soon drawn into the world of BZRK, a secret organization that uses biological nano technology to fight for the free will of humanity. Noah's brother went insane and no one knows why. When he is recruited by BZRK, Noah understands the stakes of these micro battles. This isn't just about free will, it is about maintaining ones sanity. Together Noah and Sadie have to bring down Bug man and the Anderson Twins who would enslave humanity, one human mind at a time.

As with most sci-fi stories, the idea of the story is solid. Two factions, using nano technology fight for the fate of humanity inside the mind. Tiny, microscopic robots literally battle one another behind a persons eye or within their brain. How terrifying to know that someone could crawl into your mind and rewire you. The problem is, that it has been done before and much better. The stakes are always the same, but in Brain Jack by Brian Faulkner where humans are being turned into mindless robots, the stakes felt much more immediate and possible. Because of the nature of the book, I was never sure if either group could pull off a takeover or take down and so the threat never felt immediate. Far too much micro to ever get a sense of the macro. Even in Feed by M.T. Anderson or Starters by Lissa Price, even the loss of one life felt so much bigger than in BZRK.

This may be in large part because of the characters. In the beginning, Sadie seemed like a great character, rich, spunky, and fit to take over her father's business, she is a perfect heroin. The tragic plane crash that nearly kills her only deepens the readers desire to learn more about her. When we meet Noah, we really feel for him and are curious as to how his brother has gone insane. Great character setup that sadly went nowhere. I never felt like I got to know Sadie or Noah. Their sexual liaisons aside, both felt flat and reactionary in a world that was anything but. Instead, Grant felt it necessary that we get into the heads of the bad guys. I learned more about Bug Man, understood his motivations, witnessed him interacting with his family and girlfriend and frankly, it was like being inside the mind of a cold blooded murderer. Every time the story returned to Bug Man or his cohorts I grew increasingly disgusted and confused. Did the author want me to think these guys were good? Why did we keep returning to them? Why were these characters more fleshed out than the heroes of the story?

I can promise you this though, should you read this book, you will never look at an eyeball or a flea in the same way again. With disturbing clarity, Grant describes the microscopic in detail. Eyelashes become trees. A bead of sweat, a giant pool. A fingernail, a deadly instrument. But once again, I grew confused. The characters continually speak about the microscopic world as if it is the most terrifying thing one could ever see. That by simply seeing these things, one is risking their own sanity. Yet, doctors and scientists, people who Grant probably relied heavily on for his research, look at these things all the time. They don't go mad from looking at hair follicles or fleas or pores. The detail was amazing, but personally I think it would be very cool to see things on the micro. It isn't the brain they have to be afraid of after all, it's the other guys with nano-bots that could be waiting inside.

Last thing and personally I think this one is huge, I found the description and use of conjoined twins in this book to be absolutely appalling. It is a terrible thing for a writer to fall into the trap of using disability, scarring, or deformity to show how a person is "bad" on the inside. The Anderson Twins, a pair of conjoined twins, are described with the words grotesque, repulsive, horrifying, a science experiment gone wrong, and terrible to look at among other things. But their disability is in no way a reason why they do what they do, nor is it a product of what they have done. If this is how they were born, why does every character describe them in such terms that you would think these two men were the ugliest "things" to ever be born. I seriously doubt if Grant feels this way about conjoined twins, but it does nothing for people with this kind of a disability to not only portray them as evil, but to then use such descriptive language to inform young readers about how hideous their disability really is.

All in all, an interesting concept bogged down with far too many ill-drawn characters and micro descriptions that are beautiful and obnoxious all in the same breath.

Disney in Shadow Book Review

Disney in Shadows (Kingdom Keepers #3) by Ridley Pearson

In this third installment of the Kingdom Keepers, Finn, Philby, Willa, Charlene, and Maybeck are once again back in the parks, this time in search of Wayne who has gone missing. Following clues that are sent to Jez through visions, they, along with Jez and Amanda are led to Disney's Hollywood Studios and Epcot. Once again, the Kingdom Keepers come face to face with Maleficent and grow closer to one another.

This series, although not terrible, is one giant commercial for Disneyworld. Ridley Pearson likes to insert clues to little known places throughout the parks so that, should his young readers visit the parks, they can then visit all the places that were in the books. I imagine he walks through the park with a pad of paper and writes down on the various places and then tries to insert them all into the book.

That is exactly how this book felt. Full of cryptograms and amalgous clues that often didn't make sense, I often wondered how these kids were coming up with the answers to these obscure clues. They have a date and a clue, "A place where stars don't go up." Television. Therefore, they should watch what is airing on the Disney channel that day. Dumbo. Dumbo is about what? Love, friendship, the circus? The circus...or like a carousel. A carousel like Cinderella's...or possibly an old mural painted on a wall. Which leads them one step closer to Wayne. 

What? How did a date and TV lead them to a mural?

To be fair, it turns out that the misinterpreted the clue and were wrong, but they got to the right place in the end, so it was all okay. Considering that this mystery is the majority of the plot though, it was very frustrating.

I was also often confused by the "rules" of the world. When and how can the kids bring things with them when they fall asleep? Why do drugs affect the kids if they can't feel anything from their sleeping bodies? Why do some of the parents think that this DHI stuff is like magic when it is so obviously science?

Pearson does try to play around with characterization this go around, but as per usual Finn is the only character with any real depth, and I wouldn't exactly call him an ocean.

Maybe book four will be better?

Fantastic Qualifications of a Magical Variety

"Myths and mythology weren't to give meaning to life but to give us an experience of life, an experience of vitality in being alive."                                -Joseph Campbell

When you think of fantasy, what springs to mind? Elves, orcs, fairies, vampires? Perhaps a certain broom flying wizard? Is it archaic language that sounds like the words were lifted from the King James Bible? Perhaps an epic quest for a magical stone?

Here's the thing, the thing I think some writers, especially those who don't understand fantasy, don't get. There are no rules in fantasy. Ursula LeGuin describes fantasy as, "A journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you." And what amazing journey's fantasy authors have been taking us on.

Fantasy has been around for as long as humanity. With the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have been searching for meaning, pushing the boundaries of our imagination. The Odyssey, Divine Comedy, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Princess and the Goblin, and Grimm's Fairy Tales make up many of the early fantasy traditions. As we moved into the 19th Century authors became more inventive creating more than just a quest-like journey or morality tale to scare young children into behaving. Rudyard Kipling had talking animals, Edgar Rice Burroughs dabbled in both science fiction and fantasy, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne was the father of what we now consider steampunk. And all of these writers have opened the door for modern fantasy writers, particularly children's writers like Tamora Pierce, Lloyd Alexander, J.K. Rowling, Megan Whalen Turner, Natalie Babbitt, and Rick Riordan.

Sure there are tropes as with any kind of storytelling. Most popular currently is a cataclysmic disaster that shatters the world, often sending civilization into a medieval existence. Although I do differentiate between sci-fi and genre, I understand that others do not, and so this would probably encompass dystopian sci-fi for some readers. Tied to the disaster stories are the advanced technology subgenre. Examples would be City of Ember and Artemis Fowl.

Perhaps my least favorite trope is the ancient language with thee and thou and shall nots, because you can't have a fantasy medieval like world if they don't sound like they are from the middle ages, right? Wrong. Fantasy, even high fantasy, doesn't need old language especially considering these are by definition, fantasy world. They can talk any way they want. Beka Cooper by Tamora Pierce proves that an author can create their own dialect and cadence. Holly Black often has worlds full of fairies and magic and I don't recall a single 'doest thou' in her novels. 

Of course, there is a whole cast of fantasy characters to choose from. Zombies, vampires, wherewolves, fairies, nyads, dryads, elves, dwarves, orcs, unicorns, goblins, mages, priests, knights, sorcerers.

Personally, I don't mind when fantasy novels have these elements, but the point is, they don't have to have any of these things. 

The Thief is set in a fantasy world that has no magic, only old gods, who may or may not be helping those in need. The contemporary, The Secret Tree hinted at magic, but at no point was any displayed. Tuck Everlasting featured a family that never dies but the true magic lies in the journey and not immortality. Kneebone Boy felt magical for almost the entire book, but in the end, was a created fantasy by others, featuring no fantasy elements, although there was a castle. Fantasy can be portals, medieval worlds, urban, and fairy tales. It can have wise old wizards or be completely devoid of anyone wise. 

Recently, I finished a book by an author that shall not be named who simply did not understand what fantasy is. This author didn't understand that sometimes magic is just a feeling, created within the journey. When a good author pushes the boundaries of imagination, ignoring the stereotypes of whatever genre they are writing, the freedom to create will take the story from fantasy to something fantastic. Taking both the reader and the writer on a journey that in Ursula LeGuin's words, "will change you."

Beka Cooper Bloodhound Book Review

Beka Cooper: Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

Beka Cooper has been a full Dog--a member of the Provost's Guard--for just over five months. When counterfeit silver coins begin turning up in shops all over the city, merchants begin raising their prices. Coupled with a bad grain harvest and a hard winter coming and Beka knows things are going to get bad in the city of Corus. Following her nose, Beka, her four-legged dog Achoo, and her partner Clary Goodwin head to Port Caynn on the tails of those who would ruin the kingdom. No mission is ever without its perils and Beka finds that she must protect her life and her heart.

With every mention of Beka's name, I long for George Cooper and Alanna and all the wonderful characters from Pierce's Lioness Rampant series. Not that Beka isn't an interesting character, but it does feel like she is lacking in the complexity both in character and plot that made Alanna so interesting. We are given such small snippets of Beka's life, a few weeks at a time, and I want to believe that Beka is made for greater things than simply being a Dog, otherwise why am I reading this series? It isn't enough that she is George Cooper's many greats grandmother. She must be more.

This second installment left me wanting more. More characters. Higher stakes. And less Beka. Yes, that's right. Less Beka. The entire book is Beka's thoughts, achievements, experiences, moments. Her mistakes are rare, and even when she makes them, things always come out right in the end. The other characters took such a backseat position that I found myself wandering, yearning for richer secondary characters with more substance. The most prevalent secondary character was Beka's scent hound, Achoo. An important part of the book to be sure, but not much characterization in a dog that can't talk. I was also sorely disappointed in the "relationship" that Beka forms with Dale. He quickly became the thing that made her tingle, but in the end I felt like he treated her like one of his tarts and strong tenacious Beka, let him.

On the bright side, the mystery was intense and although counterfeiting is a big deal, the problem of a corrupt Provost and guard almost gets Beka killed. That said, the pacing always felt off-kilter and the action stretched on and on in a way that made it impossible for readers not to guess the twists and turns. Tamora is a brilliant world builder, but Beka's world was just too small for me.

Liar & Spy Book Review

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

When Georges' family falls on hard times, they move from their nice home to a Brooklyn apartment. There he meets Safer, a twelve-year old coffee addicted spy and Georges is his newest recruit. Their current mission, a neighbor named Mr. X, who may or may not be a serial killer, causes Georges to wonder about his new friend and lengths he is willing to go to be true to himself.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn't a huge fan of Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me as the minute she mentioned A Wrinkle in Time, I automatically guessed it was a time travel story and thus the entire book fell apart for me. That said, I give every story it's fair shake even if Liar & Spy did sound like a modern re-telling of Harriet the Spy.

For the first 120 pages or so, that is how it read too. A predictable middle grade spy novel about two kids who have some eccentricities to be sure, but in a way that didn't seem too outside the norm. And then, in two pages, the author revealed a whole new depth to her story that made me loudly exclaim, "Wow." To which, my boyfriend asked me what was going on and I had to summarize the entire book in order for him to understand the nuances of a book that just a minute before I had been hum drum about.

This is not a spy novel. This is the story of a boy in the middle of an existential crisis. It is about phobias and games, bullies, illness, job loss, and the little dots that make up the big picture that is us. Stead crafts a beautiful novel, whose only flaw may be that young readers might not make it to the end to discover that beautiful moment as there isn't a whole lot of action in the story. Perhaps one for my end of the year list: Book that adults like more than kids.

A Hero for WondLa Book Review

A Hero for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi

Eva Nine grew up in an underground sanctuary, raised by her robot Muthr (multi-utility task helper robot) having never seen another human being before. At the end of The Search for WondLa, Eva and her friend Rovender Kitt meet a boy named Hailey who hails from New Attica, an entire colony full of humans  who live together in peace and harmony.

But New Attica is not the Utopian paradise she was promised. The people know nothing of Orbona or the aliens who have made it home. They questions nothing and their leader is clearly bent on reclaiming this world for the humans.

Launching from where the last book left off, A Hero for WondLa is just as action packed as the last installment. DiTerlizzi has created a sci-fi world that feels like a classic fairy tale with talking trees and flying warships. It is a world that feels like it should be home and yet it is not and it was easy to relate to both Eva, a new creature for a new world, and the humans who are so desperately trying to hold onto the old one. I absolutely love to see science fiction for middle grade readers because it was a book like this one that made me fall in love with the genre, a love affair that has continued to this day.

Caught within the pages are DiTerlizzi's beautiful illustrations, all tinted with blue in this sequel. Like any good picture book, the illustrations enhance the story, but at no point did they feel like a substitute for good storytelling.

The stakes are getting bigger with each book, more questions are answered, and for Eva this is a coming of age story like none other, with changes that are both metaphorical and physical. A gem of a sci-fi that isn't afraid to allow its readers to think. I cannot wait for the third installment.

Seraphina Book Review

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Despite a four decade old peace treaty between human and dragon kind, the kingdom of Goredd is rife with distrust and prejudice. Dragons have the ability to fold themselves into human shape, but have strict laws regarding how they display emotion and other human like traits. In turn the humans are deeply discriminatory towards dragons.

Trapped between both these world is Seraphina Dombegh, a unusually talented musician, and self-enforced loner. Seraphina is unwittingly drawn into a plot, along with the Queen's guardsman, that could very well destroy the truce between the two nations. Struggling to keep a terrible secret, Seraphina searches for a way to solve the mystery of a dead royal before the treaties fortieth anniversary.

Seraphina is a rich and intellectual world, with deep thoughts regarding love, music, art, religion, and philosophy. The author seems to be asking the reader with profound implications, What does it mean to be human? What must happen for a person t accept themselves? Should the prejudices of others affect how we see ourselves?

Seraphina is a deliciously complex character. Although she has been told to keep a low-profile, her curiosity and keen understanding of both dragons and humans along with a stubborn crankiness and bravery always seem to draw her into situations that catch the attention of her superiors.

The secondary characters are well-drawn as well, with the truth seeking and handsome Prince Lucian and his fiancee Princess Glisselda. These two, despite their differences were perfect foils for Seraphina. Lucian has just enough charm without feeling false. Princess Glisselda is bubbly and bright, but also intelligent and intent on protecting her kingdom. Add to these cast of characters is Seraphinas cantankerous father, her diplomatic dragon tutor, acrobats, evil dragons, and deceitful Earls.

Despite the dark plots and twists, Seraphina reads more like a mystery than an epic fantasy though. The dragon confrontations are never as scary as in The Hobbit or Eragon, and until the very end the stakes never felt as big, but that didn't change its impact or its beauty.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth Book Review

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Mary lives in a world overrun by the Unconsecrated. Tucked away in her village, Mary lives a life of expectation, making plans on who she will marry and dreaming of the ocean. Then, when her mother is bitten and becomes one of the Unconsecrated, Mary's world is thrown upside down. Forced to live with the Sisterhood, a religious order of sisters whose secrets seem impregnable. Then Mary sees an outsider, proof that there is life outside her small village in the midst of Unconsecrated. But the outsider is only the beginning and when the fences are breached, Mary escapes into the Forest of Hands and Teeth desperate to find others and herself.

It's a great premise. Hundreds of years in the future humans struggle to survive amidst millions of zombies who never die. Oceans, cities, skyscrapers are barely believed stories passed down from generation to generation. A secret order of Sisters knows things that they never share with anyone including the fact that there are others out there.

Too bad Mary was the most irrational, impulsive, selfish, and stupid character I have ever met. In fact, I would go as far as saying that Mary is directly responsible for the deaths of most of her friends, if not her entire village due to her selfishness. She knows of the outsider Gabrielle, but never thinks to help the girl even though the sisterhood has proven that they are not above killing in order to keep their secrets. Mary only wishes to speak to Gabrielle so the girl can tell her about her beloved ocean. When Mary does decide to look for Gabriel, it is too late for the girl who has become one of the undead.

Now may be the time to mention the strange love triangle, if it can be called that. Follow this if you can: Mary likes Travis, but Travis is set to marry her best friend Cass. So Mary is all set to marry Harry, Travis' brother, but when her mother is bitten, Harry never comes for her and Mary is forced to join the Sisterhood because her brother refuses to take her in. While there, Travis hurts himself and Mary quickly falls in love with him. But Travis doesn't come for her either. Then, surprise, Harry says he will marry her, but Mary hates him for it, because she is really in love with Travis. And then things get all weird because Harry really likes Cass and for reasons unknown will not marry her. I mean how hard would it be for these two guys to just switch girls, girls the supposedly love, and be done with it?

Of course, the biggest issue with all of this is that Mary lacks communication skills. She would make a terrible wife because she always feels the need to keep secrets from everyone. REALLY IMPORTANT SECRETS! Secrets that could save everyone's life. Yet, Mary spends most of her time lamenting about her life, her love of Travis (which is really just an infatuation tied together with some lust), and her ocean. Mary is more of an enemy than any zombie.

This would actually make an interesting character if that was what the author was meaning to do, but I don't think that is the case here. We are supposed to empathize with Mary, feel her pain, throb with her lusts, and understand her. Instead, I was screaming at the character, quite literally yelling out loud, "You are so selfish. You deserve to be bitten by zombies."

Beka Cooper Terrier Book Review

Beka Cooper: Terrier by Tamora Pierce

Beka Cooper is a Dog in training, a puppy, whose job is to police the lower city. Beka was made to be a Dog, she knows it, her friends know it, even the rats know it. But not everyone survives puppy training and Beka, no thanks to her magical gift, quickly stumbles across a series of murders that raises eyebrows even in the lower city. Yet, Beka has to overcome her debilitating shyness or risk failure.

This is Tamora Pierce's fifth series in the Tortall universe, this time following Beka Cooper of many greats grandmother of George Cooper whom we have met in the Lioness Quartet. Beka is smart and quick, and despite her shyness, I never once thought she wasn't able to do her job. I had every faith that she would solve the murders, the real journey was in Beka herself as she learned to assert herself and become bolder with each day. Written in journal format, the story felt right as a first person letter of her accounts.

An interesting aspect of the writing is how Pierce creates her own dialect. The policemen are Dogs, trainees, puppies. Criminals are rats. Women, motts. Men, coves. Girls, gixies. The lower city cadence that Beka adopts when around the rats adds even more flavor. Never mind that rich characters that surround Beka, creating a fabulous cast of characters that makes this world one of the richest ones in young adult fantasy.

I still love Alanna more, but Beka Cooper is a nice addition to the Tortallan universe and I am looking forward to this mott becoming a full Dog.

The Search for WondLa Book Review

The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi

Eva Nine lives in an underground Sanctuary with her caregiver robot, Muthr. Eva dreams of being able to go outside, to search for other humans. When an invader destroys her home and Eva is forced to escape, she finds that the world is nothing like she was taught, and the search for others like herself will lead her into situations far more dangerous than any of Muthr's training sessions.

I have to admit that sometimes I do judge books by their covers, and when I saw this cover I was so sure that it was a fantasy with talking animals so I avoided it, for talking animals are definitely not my favorite element in any kind of book. So you should have seen the look on my face when I realized this was in fact a middle grade dystopian sci-fi, one of my absolute all-time favorite genres. I was even more surprised to discover how absolutely fabulous it is.

Eva Nine is wonderfully drawn character, both literally and figuratively. Her wonder and vulnerability mixed with her deep loneliness and desperate need to have a family makes her an endearing and enduring character. The world building here is brilliant, another planet where trees walk, whales fly, and beings with technology seek out animals and artifacts for their museums. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and if there is ever a moment where the reader is unclear as to what a character looks like, they are quickly revealed.

Tony DiTerlizzi does have a bit of a adjective obsession, sometimes spending a bit more time with his descriptions than I prefer, but it is a small thing in an otherwise wonderful sci-fi.