Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill

Title: The Witch's Boy
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher:
Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date:
September 16, 2014
Rating: 5/5 

Cover Impressions: The cover is super cute.  I love the tiny figures with huge shadows.  I worry that the colors are not bright enough to make it stand off a shelf and hope that it doesn't stop kids from picking it up.
I love the fairy tale feel of the book blurb and the fact that the main character's mother is a witch - which is a nice divergence from the traditional tale. 

The Gist:
When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging, bewitched river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. Sure enough, Ned grows up weak and slow, and stays as much as possible within the safe boundaries of his family’s cottage and yard. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic that Ned’s mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it's Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.

In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned’s village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King. She is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: “The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.” But when Áine and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over?


Review:


Having lost his twin brother in a drowning accident as they ventured out to find the sea, Ned never feels completely whole and is unable to do many of the things that he had previously taken for granted.  He has been plagued by the assumption that his father had saved the wrong boy.  His mother is a witch who uses dangerous magic and Ned is constantly faced with the townspeople who love her when they need her and loathe her when they don't.  He retreats into himself, rarely speaking and avoiding interaction with anyone, even his grief-stricken parents.  When his mother's magic is threatened by outside forces, Ned is the only one who can protect it and he is sent on a perilous journey to save himself, his family, and his village. 

The Witch's Boy is written in a beautiful style that is reminiscent of classic fairy tales.  The author displays a unique and clever sense of wit that kept me smiling to myself. 

King Ott; benevolent ruler of the Kingdowm of Duunin (of course he was benevolent! It said so on banners and placards and all of the money! He even required his generals to tattoo it on their forearms with an outline of his smiling face hovering above), was in a bit of a snit. 

There is an exchange between the bandit king and the king of Duunin, as the later calls the executioner and the former merely smiles, that had me in stitches.  At the same time, the author regularly comments on the magic, delight and power of words which is bound to warm the heart of any lover of books and reading. 

A word is a magic thing.  It holds the essence of an object or an idea and pins it to the world.  A word can set the universe in motion.  

I love middle grade stories that do not shy away from important themes and deep symbolism.  The Witch's Boy is one of these.  There is a continuous thread throughout the novel the reminds of there could not possibly be NOTHING on the other side of the mountain (in fact nothing is a very important word and becomes a refrain repeated by several characters).  The author does a beautiful job of extending this metaphor to show that there is never "nothing", even in death.  The soul never disappears, it simply moves to the next place - the other side of the mountain.

"There is no death," the Stone said.  "There is only the next thing.  A mountain gives way to a river and becomes a canyon.  A tree gives way to its rot and becomes the ground.  We will let go of our unnaturally elongated lives and embrace something else."

The characters also have a magic all their own.  By the end of the novel, we see such remarkable growth in Ned as he learns his own power and the strength of his own desires.  The magic itself also makes for a very fun character.  It has a fantastic voice as it speaks inside Ned's head.  It doesn't seem to have the same sense of morality or guilt that a human character would, which makes it much more unpredictable and enjoyable to read.

(Having been asked to heal a bandit) 
We are certain that you meant to say, "painless death."  We can say it together: "painless death." Or painful, if you prefer.  It's up to you.  Please tell us that you simply misspoke.

The plot moves at a decent pace, and is helped along by the changing of viewpoints from Ned to Aine to the King, to the Bandit King, to the Stones and so on.  There is a great deal of action that will keep any reader interested and a beautiful thread of friendship that will keep them satisfied.

Bottom Line: The Witch's Boy is wonderful.  A phenomenal addition to any middle grade library and well written enough to be enjoyed by older audiences as well.       

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
10 and up 
Sex: None
Violence: Death by drowning, Death by arrow, Swordplay
Inappropriate Language: None
Substance Use/Abuse: None

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday - March 25, 2015


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

This week's pre-publication "can't-wait-to-read" selection is: The Wicked Will Rise by Danielle Paige which is due to be released on March 31st.

 In this dark, high-octane sequel to the New York Times bestselling Dorothy Must Die, Amy Gumm must do everything in her power to kill Dorothy and free Oz.

To make Oz a free land again, Amy Gumm was given a mission: remove the Tin Woodman’s heart, steal the Scarecrow’s brain, take the Lion’s courage, and then Dorothy must die....

But Dorothy still lives. Now the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked has vanished, and mysterious Princess Ozma might be Amy’s only ally. As Amy learns the truth about her mission, she realizes that she’s only just scratched the surface of Oz’s past—and that Kansas, the home she couldn't wait to leave behind, may also be in danger. In a place where the line between good and evil shifts with just a strong gust of wind, who can Amy trust—and who is really Wicked?


This is one of my highly anticipated releases for the year.  This is the second book in the Dorothy Must Die series (which I ADORE).  I have been waiting for this release all year and have read every novella that Paige has published just to get a little taste of this twisted up Oz. GIMMIE GIMMIE!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

New Releases: March 24, 2015


It's Release Day!!  Here are some of the new books that I am excited about this week!

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed 

This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?

Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.


The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one long dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.

We hear Amber’s story and Violet’s, and through them Orianna’s, first from one angle, then from another, until gradually we begin to get the whole picture—which is not necessarily the one that either Amber or Violet wants us to see.

Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.
 

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Cemetery Boys by Heather Brewer

Title: The Cemetery Boys
Author: Heather Brewer
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date:
March 30, 2015
Rating:
4/5

Cover Impressions: Seriously, the book is called the Cemetery Boys and you didn't include a creepy graveyard scene?  WTH?

The Gist:
When Stephen is forced to move back to the nowhere town where his father grew up, he’s already sure he’s not going to like it. Spencer, Michigan, is like a town straight out of a Hitchcock movie, with old-fashioned people who see things only in black-and-white. But things start looking up when Stephen meets the mysterious twins Cara and Devon. They’re total punks–hardly the kind of people Stephen’s dad wants him hanging out with–but they’re a breath of fresh air in this backward town. The only problem is, Cara and Devon don’t always get along, and as Stephen forms a friendship with the charismatic Devon and something more with the troubled Cara, he starts to feel like he’s getting caught in the middle of a conflict he doesn’t fully understand. And as Devon’s group of friends, who hang out in a cemetery they call The Playground, get up to increasingly reckless activities to pass the summer days, Stephen worries he may be in over his head.

Stephen’s fears prove well-founded when he learns of Spencer’s dark past. It seems the poor factory town has a history of “bad times,” and many of the town’s oldest residents attribute the bad times to creatures right out of an urban legend. The legend goes that the only way the town will prosper again is if someone makes a sacrifice to these nightmarish creatures. And while Stephen isn’t one to believe in old stories, it seems Devon and his gang might put a lot of faith in them. Maybe even enough to kill for them.

Now, Stephen has to decide what he believes, where his allegiances lie, and who will really be his friend in the end.


Review:


The Cemetery Boys was a pretty surprising read.  I wasn't expecting to like this one as much as I did.  There was a great atmosphere - it was very creepy and an interesting mystery.  It had a touch of the paranormal that kept me guessing right up to the end (and past that to be honest).  The Winged Ones are fascinating.  Devon and the boys certainly believe in them and Stephen can't quite decide whether he does or not - and neither could I.  It could have been a case of mental instability that latched onto a small town myth, or there could have actually been giant winged creatures that attacked people in the town.

The characters were interesting enough, but I would have appreciated a little more time with them.  It seemed like there were too many boys in the gang to get an opportunity to learn about any one of them.  Stephen was a self proclaimed boring guy and I didn't have the strength of feeling for him that I had hoped.  I was a big fan of his bitter and cruel grandmother - at least she kept things interesting.

The plot of The Cemetery Boys didn't quite go the typical route.  There were some events that were pretty predictable, but one or two plot twists that I didn't see coming.  It was fast paced enough to keep me connected to the plot while still allowing for an air of mystery.     

There was one particularly large issue (though I don't know how much power an author has over this, it may be a publishing decision): I hate prologues that consist of an insert of a scene from later in the book.  In some books, the prologue is an integral part of the plot, in others it acts as some type of teaser for the most exciting part of the book.  In this case, it was the later.  It featured a seriously important scene which gave away a large part of the story.  Reading it ruined the flow for me as I just kept waiting for that scene to happen. If you have this one on the TBR pile, do yourself a favor and skip the prologue. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
13 and up 
Sex: Kissing
Violence: Fistfighting, Knifeplay, Fire
Inappropriate Language: Shit, Piss, Pussy, Fag, Dick,
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking, Smoking 

Unanswered Questions: When reading Tarot Cards was Cara only using the major arcana?  If not, how did she manage to NEVER pull a minor card?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno

Title: The Half Life of Molly Pierce
Author: Katrina Leno
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 8, 2014
Rating:
2/5

Cover Impressions: I love the shade of blue that they used for the font, but the cover is not nearly as interesting or compelling as it could have been.  I would have liked to see something that fit better with the subject matter.

The Gist:
For all of her seventeen years, Molly feels like she’s missed bits and pieces of her life. Now, she’s figuring out why. Now, she’s remembering her own secrets. And in doing so, Molly uncovers the separate life she seems to have led…and the love that she can’t let go.

The Half Life of Molly Pierce is a suspenseful, evocative psychological mystery about uncovering the secrets of our pasts, facing the unknowns of our futures, and accepting our whole selves.


Review: 

I so wanted to love this book.  There are elements that are fantastic and fascinating - but I can't talk about them without filling the review with spoilers.  Sooooooo I will put a Spoilerific section at the end.

First off, things that didn't work: The author has a strange writing style.  A lot of the narration takes place in Molly's head - which is itself a hard place to be as she fixates on every little embarrassing action and berates herself for it internally.  This is interrupted by strange, choppy dialogue - usually with her two friends who were beyond dull and annoying.  They had no personality to them (beyond the girl, whose name escapes me, texting non-stop and getting irritatingly pissy whenever Molly didn't respond) and the conversations were typical of how authors who have never spent time around teenagers, seem to think teenagers speak.
 
There was a great deal of "I know what is going on but I can't tell you" throughout the first half of this novel.  And when I say great deal, I mean EVERY CHARACTER KNEW! Even down to the students and staff at school and NOBODY will tell Molly anything!  Worse than that, Molly doesn't seem to care all that much.  The entire plot is based around her finding out what goes on during her missing time, but she doesn't seem the least bit driven to discover the answers.

What worked: The whole love interest plot line was unique as it happens in reverse.  We discover that they are in love, and then work backwards to find out how it all happened.  There isn't a whole lot of chemistry between Molly and Sader, but the mystery at least keeps it interesting.   This occurs through flashbacks that work from the present time, back to when Molly started losing track of time.  The time jumping works to keep the plot moving and, frankly, those parts were way more interesting than watching Molly in the present.  

SPOILERS SECTION BELOW:

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Molly has a dissociative identity disorder.  Specifically, she has one alter named Mabel who has been with her for most of her life and who is able to take over Molly's body and live her own life.  This particular point was fairly easy to guess, but once Mabel is revealed, I was really interested in the book.  I don't know much about this disorder (other than watching and loving United States of Tara), so the subject matter was fascinating.  I loved watching how Mabel was different from Molly and how she managed to keep herself hidden from Molly for so long.

In the end, however, Mabel simply fades away and allows Molly to live her life.  This felt incredibly unrealistic.  I very much doubt that most people with dissociative identity disorder are able to simply will their alter into submission and go on with their life as if it never happened.  Beyond this, Molly was B-O-R-I-N-G, I would have been much happier if the novel had gone the less predictable route of having Mabel take over and Molly become the alter.  Especially if this meant there would be a struggle for control - now THAT would be fun to read.     

Bottom Line: The Half Life of Molly Pierce is based on a really fascinating premise, but the execution is not nearly as strong as it could have been. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
13 and up
Sex: Kissing, Sex alluded to but not shown
Violence: Death by motorcycle accident, attempted suicide
Inappropriate Language: Fuck, Jesus, Asshole, Shit, Bitch
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking

Great For Readers Who Loved:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday - March 18, 2015


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

This week's pre-publication "can't-wait-to-read" selection is: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed which is due to be released on March 24th

This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?

Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.


Monday, March 16, 2015

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Title: The Walls Around Us
Author: Nova Ren Suma
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date:
March 24th, 2015
Rating:  5/5

Cover Impressions: The style is interesting, and I can appreciate the symbolism more after having read the book, but this cover wasn't quite as interesting as it could have been.  The blurb however, is really well written.  The whole idea of two voices, one of which is in a girls' detention center, was what really grabbed me and it is one of the elements that really makes this novel work. 

The Gist:


The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one long dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.

We hear Amber’s story and Violet’s, and through them Orianna’s, first from one angle, then from another, until gradually we begin to get the whole picture—which is not necessarily the one that either Amber or Violet wants us to see.

Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.


Review:
I will admit, I was trepidatious going into this one.  I wasn't a big fan of Imaginary Girls and I thought this author just wasn't for me.  But wow, this one blew me away.  The writing style is really unique, it features a dual narrative that switches between ghost and girl, past and present but also has a strange time overlap.  I was skeptical about how well this would work but, once I got used to it, it really did.  There are actually three real main characters, Amber, a girl convicted of murder but widely believe to be innocent, Ori, a girl convicted of murder and widely believed to be a stone cold killer and Violet, a ballet dancer widely believed to be a massive bitch.  Amber is a very sympathetic character and Violet is decidedly, not.  I applaud the choice of Amber as narrator.  The obvious choice would have been Ori, with Amber as a mildly interesting side character, but I don't think that would have had the impact that Amber did.  Vi is a pretty dispicable character.  She is driven by her desire to be a dancer, at any cost, and seems willing to push aside and stop on anyone who gets in her way.  She is standoffish at best and downright mean at worst. Through both narrators, we get a fascinating view into their sense of guilt and the impact that it does (or doesn't) have on the psyche of a young girl.  

The Walls Around Us holds two big mysteries.  Interestingly enough, we learn the ending of both of them fairly early on.  The rest of the novel is spent discovering the how and why which could have become tedious and boring, but didn't.  I actually spent most of the book enthralled in both plotlines and created various theories as to the motivation behind the events.  Through the story, we also glimpse a fascinating world of institutionalism and the impact that it can have on young people.  I am a big fan of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black and couldn't help drawing parallels between the two. 

The ending did a number on my head.  I have spent the last few hours thinking through the events and trying to get them straight in my head.  I still haven't decided if I like things turning out the way they did or if I would have preferred something a little more cut and dry - but, if it had been, I probably wouldn't still be thinking about it, so there is that.  The magical realism comes to a head and the reader is left trying to decipher what is real and what is a lie.   

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
15 and up 
Sex: Oral Sex
Violence: Several murder, Child Abuse
Inappropriate Language: Bitch, Fuck, Slut
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking, Drug Use

Unanswered Questions: Um, what just happened?