Friday, February 28, 2014

Cragbridge Hall, by Chad Morris

16. (Whitney Finalist, MG)

This book has been on my to-read list for some time, not least because I was impressed by the way the author debuted this book during an extremely trying personal time (his daughter was sick with a tumor and he made it clear his priority was with his family).

The Inventor's Secret (Cragbridge hall, #1)The story is set in the year 2074, when students no longer simply read about history or zoology--they experience it by viewing history through a bridge, by learning zoology by assuming avatars. Abby Cragbridge and her twin Derick are two of the newest students at an elite school based around these cutting edge technologies--but unlike other students for the highly competitive school, they may have had an unfair edge. The inventor behind all this technology is their grandfather. While this doesn't bother Derick, it bothers Abby extremely, and becomes a subject of immediate confrontation between Abby and her roommate, who kicks her out of their shared room because she feels Abby unfairly occupies a place that might have gone to one of her friends.

But dealing with mean girls isn't the worst of Abby's problems. An unscrupulous scientist has kidnapped her grandfather and her parents, and unless Abby and Derick can solve a series of clues to uncover their grandfather's secrets, their parents might meet an untimely death.

I thought this was a cute story--there's a lot to love in the setting and all the fun technical tools Abby and Derick use, and the various clues were interesting and inventive. This isn't the kind of middle grade you read for the style (as you would Gary Schmidt or ClareVanderpol), but for plot. Though there were a few elements that stretched my credulity (Abby's friend Carol seemed a bit over the top, and the whole thing about the clues seemed more like an interesting plot device than a realistic ploy), the book was fast-paced but still had heart. I think my 8 y.o. son would enjoy this a great deal.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mile 21

15. Sarah Dunster, Mile 21 (Whitney finalist, General)

Mile 21 While the cover of this novel makes it appear to be a romance, I don't think that's really what it is. I think it's much more an exploration of the main character's personal recovery from devastating grief. At 21, Abish Cavendish Miller is a widow of one year and she's not coping well. She's reached the point in her grief where everyone expects her to move on, but she's not there yet. She's prickly at work, avoids her family, and is generally content to avoid everyone and everything (mostly by running--literally--anytime she feels emotionally threatened). But when her mother kicks her out of her cushy job managing some apartments (or not managing, as Abish seems to be doing) and her boss issues her an ultimatum, Abish finds herself in unexpectedly new (and unwelcome) environs: living with an apartment of girls in an LDS singles ward. All she wants to do is keep her head down, go to school, and get through this.

Gradually, however, Abish finds herself enmeshed in the lives of those around her: the roommates that she consistently underestimates, the good-looking young single father of two with his own concealed pain, even the parents she can't seem to find words to talk to. And she runs. The running seems to be a metaphor for this book of Abish's ability to push through difficult things (she plans to run the Ogden marathon despite the fact that she's never been able to make it past mile 16)--and the running affords her both an escape from her life and a place to make sense of it.

I really loved this book. Though I am not a runner nor a widower, I resonated with Abish's struggles to come to terms with her life, particularly within LDS theology, which holds that her marriage to her husband is eternal. How does one come back from that? If she's married to him (and loves him) for time and eternity, what is she supposed to do with the rest of her time on earth? How does she move on from him--and does she even want to? I loved that Dunster managed to ask serious questions without resorting to trite or pat answers--and that she created a realistic look at life inside the bubble of a singles ward (including the good and sometimes terrible things that people do to each other under the banner of their faith). And I'll admit--I cried. Quite a bit, actually, and I'm not one to cry easily when I read. The crying wasn't so much because the novel was depressing (far from it, actually), but because I found myself so moved by Abish and her growth.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Chasing June

14. Shannen Crane Camp, Chasing June (Whitney finalist, YA)

Chasing June (June, #2) Chasing June is the sequel to Camp's Finding June, featuring June Laurie, a budding actress with a set of funny, quirky friends. This one picks up two years after the previous book, as June and her boyfriend/best friend Joseph are heading north to Utah, to start university life at Brigham Young University. While there were lots of fun elements to the story (bizarre roommates, college life, a swoony new love interest), I struggled a little with this book. My overall sense was that while things were hard for June--she doesn't get along with her roommates, she and Joseph can't seem to communicate with each other and she's lonely--things never get *too* hard. Her roommate issues clear up fairly quickly, and there are new cute boy distractions to keep her from obsessing too long and too hard about issues with Joseph. I think, though, that what really got me here was a minor side-plot, where one of the characters (unnamed here to avoid spoilers) develops some eating disorder(ish) behaviors. I recognize that Camp was probably trying to drive home a message for young readers about the importance of loving themselves and their bodies as they are without relying on the opinions of strangers, but I found myself really bothered by how this part of the plot unfolded. Like some of the other plotlines, when resolution came, it came quickly and permanently--and it seems to me that eating disorders can be a serious enough issue that their resolutions are neither quick nor always permanent.

My opinion is probably a minority as most other reviewers seem to really love this story--and it's true that June is cute and fun and there's a lot of teenage wish fulfillment in the story that will appeal to many readers.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Village Notary

13. Joseph Eotvos (imagine this has Hungarian style umlauts over the "o's"), The Village Notary

I read this novel primarily because I'm trying to capture the flavor of life in a mid-nineteenth century village for a project I'm working on. For that purpose, the book answered excellently, as it was written primarily to critique the corrupt government style common in nineteenth-century counties. The story itself was a bit melodramatic, about a village notary who was one of the few honest men in the town government, and whose enemies spend much of the book conniving at his downfall. It's hard not to feel bad for him, as life hands him one trial after another, each usually compounded by coincidence. The writing is old-fashioned, so it won't appeal to most, but I enjoyed reading it for the glimpse it afforded into life in another time and place.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Love Letters of the Angel of Death

12. Jennifer Quist, Love Letters of the Angel of Death (Whitney, general category)

Love Letters of the Angels of Death This was a gorgeously written book exploring the close (sometimes constricting) ties between two people who know and love each other intimately. This isn't a plot driven novel at all, but a character driven one, written as a series of letters (sort of) from husband to wife. (In fact, the chapters switch back and forth in terms of time so while there are clear character arcs, they're not always linear ones. To Quist's credit, I never found myself lost in terms of time or place, despite the switching). For most of the novel, we don't even know the character's names: there's just "I" (the husband) and "you" (the wife). The chapters tell a series of loosely connected vignettes, important moments in the characters' relationship (often associated with their reaction to death, as suggested by the title). Despite the occasional morbidity of the characters, this really isn't a dark novel--it's more about life and celebrating relationships than about death, though of course death sets important parameters on those relationships.

It took me a while to get into the second-person narration, but once I got past that I found myself engrossed in the story and read it in just a couple of days. It's a short novel, but a powerful one. I found myself repeatedly slowing down just to enjoy the prose. My friend Kel has a stunning review up at Segullah, that delves more deeply than I intend to into the sheer pleasure of the prose.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Thousand Perfect Things

11. Kay Kenyon, A Thousand Perfect Things

A Thousand Perfect Things I really wanted to love this alternative history novel dramatizing the tensions between England and its Indian colony (here, Bharata). And there were things I did love, starting with the gorgeous cover and the clever heroine, Tori Harding, who wants nothing so much as to follow in her famous botanist grandfather's footsteps. In particular, she's drawn to the intersection of science and magic in the famed golden lotus--a Bharatan flower that most people believe doesn't exist, but Tori has seen proof of (proof that her grandfather smuggled out of Bharata years ago). When a series of strange magical attacks prompts increased English forces in Bharata, Tori follows her military father to Bharata and is increasingly drawn to the strange and beautiful world.

Kenyon has set up some fascinating, complex worlds here--her depiction of the magic system in Bharata was compelling and I enjoyed the contrast between the science-driven Brits and their magic-driven counterparts. But I didn't end up loving the plot, which didn't seem to guarantee protection for the characters I cared about (I was surprised by more than one death through the course of the story--I know this isn't a bad thing, it was just a development that kept me from loving the story). And Tori herself had some quirks I had a hard time buying. My biggest issue? For a well-bred Victorian woman, Tori was surprisingly quick to adopt the more lax sexual mores of her more experienced older friend on the trip to Bharata. It's not that I don't think such a transition is possible--I know it is--it was only that her change in thinking and behavior was so quick and thorough that it was hard for me to credit.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Distance Between Us

The Distance Between Us Whitney Awards YA Finalist

10. I really loved this book--easily the best YA book I've read since Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. (Not that this was all that long ago, but still . . . ). This is my kind of YA: cute, charming, uplifting--but with just enough tension and difficulties to keep the story grounded in reality.

Caymen Meyers is happy enough with her life: she spends most of her spare time working in the doll store her mom owns, trying to keep the business afloat. And if she regrets that she doesn't really have a life outside the store (or a future; she's trying to figure out how to tell her mom she won't go to college the next year so she can stay home and help with the store), she mostly tries not to think about it.

And then she meets Xander (or Alex, as his grandmother calls him), who is exactly the kind of boy her mom has warned her about. Not a bad boy--a rich boy. His family owns an enormous chain of hotels, and his grandmother is one of their best customers. Caymen is attracted to Xander almost from the start, but she keeps pushing him away. What kind of future would they have? They're from different worlds. Even if they dated, it could never go anywhere. But almost inspite of herself, Caymen starts to let Xander in. And the process changes both of them.

I thought both the main characters here were adorable--and I liked the secondary characters, too. The drama between Caymen and her mom felt real: they love each other, but they struggle with each other, too. And I cheered for Caymen as she figured out what she wanted on her own terms. Mostly, though, I thought this was a charming romance--exactly what I was hoping it would be.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dead girls don't lie

Dead Girls Don't Lie It's that time of year again-when I attempt to read all of the Whitney finalists:

9. Jennifer Shaw Wolf's Dead Girls Don't Lie is a YA finalist for the Whitney awards.

Jaycee's summer has gone unexpectedly awry. Her best friend, Rachel, is dead--murdered. And Jaycee is torn by guilt, for not being there for Rachel the night she died (she deliberately ignored her texts to spend time with a boy at a party). But after receiving a strange video from Rachel, Jaycee starts to investigate Rachel's death. And the more questions she asks, the more questions she finds. Jaycee isn't sure who to trust, but if she can't figure it out, she might be targeted by the same people who targeted Rachel.

I enjoyed this one--it was cleanly written and the tension builds nicely. If I was frustrated with Jaycee because of her insistence on keeping secrets (rather than enlisting the help she desperately needs), I also realize there might not have been as much of a story.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

These Broken Stars

8. These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

These Broken Stars (Starbound, #1) I'm always a little cautious about sci-fi--sometimes I love it, sometimes I really don't (for instance, I wasn't as enamored of the Beth Revis series so many people love). But this came highly recommended by a friend--plus, I'm a sucker for books about girls in beautiful dresses. (I know, don't judge a book by it's cover--but everyone does). And red-heads.

I really enjoyed this book, which starts with a Titanic-like premise. Lilac LeRoux is one of the richest girls in the galaxy; her father owns the massive luxury spaceship she's traveling on. She has almost nothing in common with Tarver Merendsen, a military hero also traveling on the Icarus, save a chance meeting on board. What starts pleasantly enough turns sour when Lilac turns him down--for his own good--and they go their separate ways. Or so they think.

When the Icarus is unexpectedly pulled from hyperspace, the two find themselves sharing an escape pod. And when their pod crash lands on a peculiarly deserted, terraformed planet, they find themselves relying on one another to survive, to get the crash site of the Icarus, and wait for rescue. But what they find about themselves during their trek is the real story.

Yes, there is a fair amount of romance here. But both characters also undergo interesting character-arcs, and the writing in general was lovely. I really enjoyed this book--though I'm still puzzling through my feelings about the ending. I can't wait to see what the authors do with the sequel. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Diviners

7. The Diviners, by Libba Bray

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1) I quite enjoyed this book--though it kept me up late more than one night in a row. Bray does an excellent job of creating period atmosphere, and a particularly creepy one at that!

It's the 1920s, and New York City is the hottest place in the world. Evie O'Neill longs to be there more than anything, and when her exasperated parents send her away from Ohio to live with her Uncle Will, the owner of a museum on the occult, she thinks this is the best thing that could have happened to her. But things aren't entirely what they seem in the city. Someone has roused the ghost of long-dead "Naughty John" and he's doing his best to fulfill his role in prophecy to rouse "the Beast" who will bring on the end of the world. And when people start dying, Evie comes to realize that her unique gift of knowing things about a person from touching something they own might help the police solve a particularly evil killer.

Evie is the main character here, but there are a host of other interesting characters, all with their own secrets. Mabel, Evie's best friend, who lives in the shadow of her revolutionary parents (Who are so taken up with various causes that they can't bother much with her). Jericho, a student who works for her uncle but has his own uneasy past. Theta, a Ziegfeld dancer with big dreams and a hidden gift. And Memphis, whose gift couldn't save his mother, but who spends his days dedicated to keeping his younger brother Isaiah safe.

One of the things I loved about this book was how the character's lives intersected in interesting ways, all set against the backdrop of 1920s NYC--the speakeasies, the booze, the jazz, even the quaint lingo. More than just period details, though, Bray smartly weaves in occult mysticism, various religious strains, philosophy (including Nietzsche) and so much more. With all that historical detail, it would be easy to bog the plot down, but Bray creates a terrific plot as well.