Saturday, April 25, 2015

New to the TBR Pile (24)

Freebie from
Love and Muddy Puddles
by Cecily Anne Paterson

Thirteen year old fashionista Coco Franks has finally made it into the popular group at school and is planning to have the most amazing year ever. But then her dad decides to go all eco-feral-greenie-crazy-tree-change and moves the whole family to a remote farm so they can 'bond'. With social death looming and more than a few pairs of ballet flats ruined by mud, Coco's plan is to get herself back to Sydney and her clique at any cost. But it will take an Akubra-hat-and-flanny-shirt-wearing boy and a nervous horse called Cupcake to show her who her real friends are.

What's new to your TBR pile this week?  Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review - Under a Painted Sky

Under a Painted Sky
by Stacey Lee
Date: 2015
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 384
Format: e-book
Source: library

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I've had my eye on this book for a while.  At first, I was drawn in by the beautiful cover.  And then I was intrigued by the synopsis.  I usually end up liking historical fiction.  This book was no exception... though I did have a few issues with it.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

I really liked the inclusion of diversity in this story.  Sammy is Chinese and Andy is black, so there's already more diversity there than I've ever seen in a book about the United States in the mid-1800s.  The girls' three companions -- Cay, West, and Peety -- are quintessential cowboys, but Peety adds a little bit of Mexican flavour to the mix.  Sammy's cultural heritage and upbringing comes into play quite a bit throughout the story.  Despite being born and raised in New York City, her father taught her about her heritage, so she brings some unique elements to the plot.  She often talks about the Chinese zodiac and the character traits that go along with each type of animal.  She's also pretty smart, being able to speak a number of languages, and is a talented musician as well.

On the whole, the characters are quite well done.  With the exception of a couple of villains who appear to be a rip-off of the Stabbington Brothers from Tangled, the rest of the characters -- including the five main ones -- are a joy to read about.  They all have such distinct personalities.  Sammy struggles with her guilt and her ideas of being a good daughter.  Andy is almost motherly, with her wise, no-nonsense style.  Cay is a bit of a womanizer, though so sweet and charming that you can't really hold it against him.  West is brooding and secretive (but with good reason), but kind as well.  And Peety is protective and funny, with some of the best lines in the book.  I got quite attached to all of them throughout the course of the story.  There is some romance (this is a young adult title, after all), but I think the stronger relationship is actually the friendship between Sammy and Andy; it takes precedence over all the other relationships (in other words, they don't let boys come between them).

This is basically an Old West road-trip story.  The setting is almost another character itself.  Everything is described quite well, and it made me wonder what that area was like back then, when wild horses and bison still roamed around, and you could travel for days without seeing another person.  I loved reading about it.

It's all a matter of taste...

While I did like the inclusion of racial diversity in this story, it was also one of its downfalls.  Sometimes, the attitudes seemed a little too modern.  Yes, there were examples of racism throughout the book but, at other times, it didn't quite seem like there was enough.  The direction the story ultimately took, while pleasing and satisfying to the modern reader, just didn't ring true to me.  I would've liked to see a few more obstacles in the way of the race issue's resolution; as it was, it just seemed too easy.

Let's get technical...

This book's main weaknesses, though, were the technical issues.  There were a lot of historical inaccuracies, anachronisms, and some overly modern speech.  Cay's age wasn't consistent throughout the book: at first, Sammy says he's 17... then he tells her he was born in January 1830, so he's obviously 19... but then Sammy refers to him as 18.  Some characters' speech patterns (particularly those of Andy and Peety) weren't all that consistent.  There seemed to be a lot of comma splicing, and there were so many wrongly used words.  (Seriously, if I read one more book that has archers "notching" their arrows, I think I'm going to scream.)  There were also a number of typos, though I don't know how many of those were just a byproduct of the conversion to EPUB format.

The verdict...

On the whole, despite a few technical issues, I did really enjoy this book.  I think it would also translate really well onto the screen; hopefully, someone'll decide to make it into a movie one day!

Quotable moment:

We gaze at the horizon, a sweeping canvas of color and texture. The sun drops like a magic ball into a hat, leaving behind a trail of glitter in the blushing sky. It takes my breath away.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 4/5
Characters: 3/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 2/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5 ladybugs

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten All-Time Favourite Authors

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is Top Ten All-Time Favourite Authors.  Actually, I think this topic will be easier than if I had to pick my favourite authors from, say, the past five years.  Because here I can include some of the authors of my favourite children's books... and I have such fond memories of some of those.

Top Ten All-Time Favourite Authors:

  1. Beverly Cleary - Of course she wrote all those super-fun Ramona books, but she also wrote a number of other titles about different characters (including some animals).  I read quite a few of those, too, and enjoyed many of them when I was a child.
  2. Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may be one of his most famous books, but I actually liked some of his funnier titles such as The Twits, The Witches, and Matilda more.  His two autobiographical books are also amazingly entertaining (they read almost like fiction... and you can see where he got ideas for some of his more outlandish characters).
  3. Charles de Lint - While a few of the middle grade and young adult titles I've read recently by this author haven't impressed me, I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of quite a few of his books for adults.  Jack of Kinrowan, Trader, and Yarrow are all quite good and introduced me to the urban fantasy genre long before it became as mainstream and popular as it is today.
  4. Diana Wynne Jones - I've only read a couple of her books that I didn't really, really enjoy.  Some of my favourite titles are Howl's Moving Castle, Fire & Hemlock, and Deep Secret.
  5. Gail Carson Levine - I've read five books by this author so far, and I've liked all of them.  The Two Princesses of Bamarre is my favourite, though; I like it even better than the more well-known Ella Enchanted.
  6. A. A. Milne - I've read four of this author's books, and I hope that lots of other people have as well.  After all, they are classics.  Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are both full of charming stories about the animals that live in the Hundred Acre Wood.  When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six are books of unforgettable poems.  I was read the books when I was little, and I re-read them myself as an adult... and I still love them.
  7. Lauren Oliver - I've read two books by this author, and I can't wait to read more.  I know I can rely on her for really strong writing, which is something that can be difficult to find.  Before I Fall is one of my all-time favourite young adult titles.
  8. Beatrix Potter - I didn't own very many of this author's little books when I was a kid, but they came home from the library with me on a regular basis.  I probably read most of them (or had them read to me) at one time or another.  All those cute little animals with their funny names and old-fashioned clothes...  What's not to love?  My favourites were probably about the family of rabbits.
  9. Mary Rayner - Have you ever heard of The Pig Family series?  Unfortunately, many people haven't because these books never seem to be in print for long.  But they are so funny.  There are ten piglets in the family, and it's fun to try to remember all of their names: Sorrel and Bryony and Hilary and Sarah and Cindy and Toby and Alan and William and Benjamin and Garth.  Whew!  Their stories combine hilarious situations with good messages for kids.  Garth Pig and the Icecream Lady (where Garth gets himself kidnapped by a wolf) and Mrs. Pig's Bulk Buy (where the piglets want copious amounts of ketchup on everything) are a couple of my favourites.
  10. Laura Whitcomb - Like Lauren Oliver, this author is one of those whose writing is so amazing, you'd want to read their retelling of the phone book.  A Certain Slant of Light is one of my favourite ghost stories.

Who are your all-time favourite authors?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review - Umbrella Summer

Umbrella Summer
by Lisa Graff
Date: 2009
Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 245
Format: e-book

Annie Richards knows there are a million things to look out for—bicycle accidents, food poisoning, chicken pox, smallpox, typhoid fever, runaway zoo animals, and poison oak. That's why being careful is so important, even if it does mean giving up some of her favorite things, like bike races with her best friend, Rebecca, and hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Everyone keeps telling Annie not to worry so much, that she's just fine. But they thought her brother, Jared, was just fine too, and Jared died.

It takes a new neighbor, who looks as plain as a box of toothpicks but has some surprising secrets of her own, to make Annie realize that her plans for being careful aren't working out as well as she had hoped. And with a lot of help from those around her—and a book about a pig, too—Annie just may find a way to close her umbrella of sadness and step back into the sunshine.

With winsome humor and a dash of small-town charm, Lisa Graff's third novel is a touching look at rising above grief and the healing power of community.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I've had this book in my TBR pile for a while.  I'm not even sure why I bought it, now!  It was probably a bargain.  While I don't have an aversion to middle-grade titles, I found this book to be a little bit... well, young.  As a result, I'm not quite sure how to review it.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

Umbrella Summer is a very simple story about a ten-year-old girl named Annie.  Annie's older brother, Jared, died five months before the book begins.  As a result of this event, the whole family is pretty screwed up.  I appreciate that the author wanted to write a story about a tough subject, in a way that kids would understand.  While I have read middle-grade titles with some tough subject matter, they were mostly for the upper end of that age group.  Umbrella Summer is clearly intended for the lower end... and while kids might not notice some of the issues with the book, this adult reader did.

It's all a matter of taste...

Like I said, I appreciate what the author tried to do here.  Unfortunately, the whole resolution to the family's problems is just a little too pat and unrealistic.  Annie has developed a horrendous case of hypochondria as a result of her brother's death.  She thinks everything is going to kill her.  There's a long period of time when she actually fears she's contracted Ebola.  Her mother deals with the death through avoidance.  She cleans the house compulsively, works long hours, and keeps Jared's bedroom as an untouched shrine.  Her father basically becomes a zombie, and he's so forgetful that he comes across like someone with dementia.  I was not impressed with the way these issues were resolved.  All it took was the neighbour telling Annie that she was avoiding dealing with her feelings by putting up a proverbial umbrella, and then this ten-year-old magically fixes her parents.  I would have liked to see a little more realistic take on the whole issue.  I can't see that, after five months of wallowing in grief and getting entrenched in some very negative habits, they would all just learn to deal with the loss without some sort of professional counselling.

This is a book that's all about the characters, and I wasn't really crazy about any of them, though that may be because I wasn't the target audience.  Annie and her friends were just so young, and I had a difficult time relating to them.  Plus, they seemed to be written rather unrealistically.  When I was ten, I doubt I would have viewed a human catapult as a plausible way to gain entry to a neighbour's house or put up with my friend needing to holler every time she put on her bike helmet.  Some of these things seemed to be included for laughs; however, as an adult, I didn't find them very funny.  (The dead brother was my favourite character in the whole book... which is probably not a good sign.)

Let's get technical...

The writing in this one wasn't technically that bad, but I had one major issue with it: since it's told from Annie's first-person point of view, we're inside the head of a ten-year-old kid for most of the book.  But the author's hand is clearly visible when Annie suddenly uses dialogue that she probably wouldn't have used, or throws in poetic descriptions that just don't seem to fit with Annie's perception of the world.

The verdict...

I'm really not sure if I would recommend this one or not.  I know there are other adults (like me) who enjoy reading middle-grade fiction.  But this seems to be one of those books that will probably only appeal to its intended audience.  Early middle graders might like it... but it'll probably seem too juvenile for anyone older than that.

Quotable moment:

Sue Beth gave me a friendly smile when I went to stand next to her, which was nice because across the circle Rebecca and Nadia were both sticking their tongues out at me. I tried to ignore them while we started up the "Welcome Fellow Sunbirds" song.

Welcome fellow Sunbirds
We're glad to have you here
It's nice to have the Sunbirds
To help me through the years

Jared always called it "Welcome Fellow Dumb Birds," and once when I was all dressed up for a troop meeting, he even made up his own words to it.

Welcome fellow dumb birds
We're glad that we are dumb
Our outfits look so stupid
And our cookies taste like scum

I'd been real mad when he sang that one, his voice all high and squeaky. But I was starting to think that it was actually a pretty good version after all.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.86 out of 5 ladybugs

Saturday, April 18, 2015

New to the TBR Pile (23)

Borrowed from the library:
Under a Painted Sky
by Stacey Lee

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

Bought from
Chasing Ravens
by Jessica E. Paige

Orphaned at a young age, 15-year old Anouk’s punishment for being too outspoken is an arranged marriage worse than any she could imagine. Fleeing on horseback, yet without a sense of where to turn, she stumbles upon an idyllic village where she finds safe haven. Could this be home?

When a curse threatens to kill the villagers she’s come to love, Anouk takes on the dangers of the natural and magical worlds to save them. Her journey takes her deep into the Dark Woods where she must draw on all her strength to survive, but will come to realize that these magic woods hold the key to discovering a gift she never knew she had.

Ultimately, it will lead her to confront the very face of death, yet amidst the danger and darkness, she meets a handsome woodsman and finds a glowing blue flower with power beyond her wildest dreams.

Inspired by Russian fairytales and steeped in ancient folklore, Paige’s novel is ripe with fantasy, love, and courage.

What's new to your TBR pile this week?  Let me know in the comments!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review - The Shadow Society

The Shadow Society
(The Shadow Society #1)
by Marie Rutkoski
Date: 2012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 416
Format: e-book

Darcy Jones doesn’t remember anything before the day she was abandoned as a child outside a Chicago firehouse. She has never really belonged anywhere—but she couldn’t have guessed that she comes from an alternate world where the Great Chicago Fire didn’t happen and deadly creatures called Shades terrorize the human population.

Memories begin to haunt Darcy when a new boy arrives at her high school, and he makes her feel both desire and desired in a way she hadn’t thought possible. But Conn’s interest in her is confusing. It doesn’t line up with the way he first looked at her.

As if she were his enemy.

When Conn betrays Darcy, she realizes that she can’t rely on anything—not herself, not the laws of nature, and certainly not him. Darcy decides to infiltrate the Shadow Society and uncover the Shades’ latest terrorist plot. What she finds out will change her world forever...

In this smart, compulsively readable novel, master storyteller Marie Rutkoski has crafted an utterly original world, characters you won’t soon forget, and a tale full of intrigue and suspense.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book was a real disappointment for me.  There's been so much buzz about the author's The Winner's Trilogy that I thought for sure this earlier book of hers would be a good read.  Unfortunately, it was predictable, slow, uninteresting, and fell victim to many of the predictable young adult tropes.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

I was intrigued for the first little while, I will admit.  The writing was fairly solid in the beginning, and the premise was interesting.  Parallel worlds?  Supernatural creatures?  Political intrigue?  Sign me up.  If all of these things had been handled well, this might have been an amazing story.

It's all a matter of taste...

But...  Oh, there are so many "buts" with this one.  My main issues with this book were the weak world-building and the many, many plot holes and inconsistencies.  The Chicago where Darcy grew up is our Chicago... the one where the Great Chicago Fire tore through the city in 1871.  The event was so cataclysmic that it spun off a parallel timeline.  That's an interesting starting point for a story of two worlds with many differences... but the author takes it way too far, to the point that it comes across as totally Americo-centric and highly annoying.  I get that there's such a thing as chaos theory, and that a small change can have a large effect, but I find it difficult to believe that a fire in Chicago would disrupt technological development in the whole rest of the world to the point that there's no TV or movies... and yet they've figured out how to make fire-filled glass handcuffs and transportation that seemingly defies the known laws of physics.  (I did a little reading on the Great Chicago Fire and was interested to learn that, although that fire is very famous, it was not the most deadly or destructive one that struck on that same day.  The Peshtigo Fire was the deadliest fire in U.S. history... and yet this book never even mentioned it.  I guess it would have screwed up the mythology of the story.)

The characters were all pretty bland, and I found that I really wasn't invested in any of them.  Darcy is supposedly an artist (though when she thinks oil paint can dry in the time it takes to eat a plate of pasta, you have to question how much she actually knows about her hobby).  Unlike so many other young adult heroines with artistic hobbies, she actually does quite a bit of art throughout the story.  She sketches weird Chicago skylines in her notebook.  She builds a sculpture for her English class.  She paints her underground bedroom with oil paints (don't ask how she doesn't asphyxiate from the fumes; she also has a mature oak growing in there, without any sort of sunlight, so I don't think the author was going for plausibility).  The beginning of the story starts out almost like Twilight, with a mysterious, broody, hot (of course) guy who appears at Darcy's school.  This is Conn, who Darcy ends up hating, then loving, then leaving... because she blames herself for something she had absolutely nothing to do with.  She's one of those tiresome heroines who beats herself up throughout the story for very little reason.  Conn is the standard young adult love interest, already an expert in his chosen career at the age of nineteen.  Most of the other minor characters I didn't really care about.  Even the villains were too stereotypical and/or boring to be of much interest.

Let's get technical...

The writing in the first part of this book wasn't too bad.  Actually, I thought it was pretty strong.  Things did eventually go downhill, but not until much later.  I nearly had a conniption at 87% after finding three comma splices in the dialogue within a couple of pages.  I have no idea what happened at that point; it was like the editor threw up his/her red pen and said, "Eh... I'm sure the rest of it's fine."  Before that, there were just the usual (and expected) misused words and homophones.  I can't really recall a young adult book I've read lately that didn't have any of those.

The verdict...

I wanted to like what sounded like an interesting story, but I just didn't, and I can't recommend this one, either.  Even worse, I'm now questioning whether I want to read The Winner's Trilogy at all; if the same problems that were present in this book are present in those ones, I probably won't like them.

Quotable moment:

Conn didn't reply, but there was a rebellious glint in his gaze. Then he stood and headed for the door. For a moment, I couldn't move. I felt rooted in place, like I had truly become part of the tree and would grow with it, like my perception of Conn was growing, changing, putting out tender new twigs, green vines, baby leaves tightly curled.

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 2/5
Originality: 2/5
Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.38 out of 5 ladybugs

New to the TBR Pile (22)

Bought from
The Firebird (Slains #2)
by Susanna Kearsley

Nicola Marter was born with a gift. When she touches an object, she sometimes glimpses those who have owned it before. When a woman arrives with a small wooden carving at the gallery Nicola works at, she can see the object’s history and knows that it was named after the Firebird—the mythical creature from an old Russian fable.

Compelled to know more, Nicola follows a young girl named Anna into the past who leads her on a quest through the glittering backdrops of the Jacobites and Russian courts, unearthing a tale of love, courage, and redemption.

Of Metal and Wishes (Of Metal and Wishes #1)
by Sarah Fine

There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her... for a very long time.

As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her... and she might go down with it.

Phoenix Island (Phoenix Island #1)
by John Dixon

The judge told Carl that one day he'd have to decide exactly what kind of person he would become. But on Phoenix Island, the choice will be made for him.

A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can't seem to stay out of trouble, using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a terminal facility, it's the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States and immune to its laws, the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and after a few rough scrapes, he earns himself the nickname "Hollywood" as well as a string of punishments, including a brutal night in the sweatbox. But that's nothing compared to what awaits him in the Chop Shop: a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.

A new life...

A new body. A new brain.

Gifts from the fatherly Old Man, who wants to transform Carl into something he's not sure he wants to become.

For this is no ordinary government project. Phoenix Island is ground zero for the future of combat intelligence.

And for Carl, it's just the beginning...

Sunbolt (The Sunbolt Chronicles #1)
by Intisar Khanani

The winding streets and narrow alleys of Karolene hide many secrets, and Hitomi is one of them. Orphaned at a young age, Hitomi has learned to hide her magical aptitude and who her parents really were. Most of all, she must conceal her role in the Shadow League, an underground movement working to undermine the powerful and corrupt Arch Mage Wilhelm Blackflame.

When the League gets word that Blackflame intends to detain—and execute—a leading political family, Hitomi volunteers to help the family escape. But there are more secrets at play than Hitomi’s, and much worse fates than execution. When Hitomi finds herself captured along with her charges, it will take everything she can summon to escape with her life.

What's new to your TBR pile this week?  Let me know in the comments!