Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Memory Hit by Carla Spradbery

Title: The Memory Hit
Author: Carla Spradbery
Hodder Children's Books
Release Date: June 4, 2015
Rating: 1/5

The Gist: On New Year's Eve, Jess's life is unrecognizable: her best friend is in the hospital, her boyfriend is a cheater. A drug-dealing cheater it would seem, after finding a stash of Nostalgex in his bag.

Nostalgex: a drug that stimulates memory. In small doses, a person can remember the order of a deck of cards, or an entire revision guide read the day before an exam. In larger doses it allows the user detailed access to their past, almost like watching a DVD with the ability to pause a moment in time, to focus on previously unnoticed details and to see everything they've ever experienced with fresh eyes. As Leon, the local dealer, says 'it's like life, only better.' What he fails to mention is that most memories are clouded by emotions. Even the most vivid memories can look very different when visited.

Across town Sam Cooper is in trouble. Again. This time, gagged and bound in the boot of a car. Getting on the wrong side of a drug dealer is never a good idea, but if he doesn't make enough money to feed and clothe his sister, who will?

On New Year's Day, Jess and Cooper's worlds collide. They must put behind their differences and work together to look into their pasts to uncover a series of events that will lead them to know what really happened on that fateful New Year's Eve. But what they find is that everything they had once believed to be true, turns out to be a lie ...

What I wanted: a book about a crazy drug that increased mental capacity and allowed people to live out their memories,  What I go: a book about the most boring teenagers on the face of the earth making terrible decisions that put their lives in danger.  Needless to say, this book was just not for me.  The effects of the drug, which I wanted to be the main feature of the plot, seemed more of a gimmick to have the characters remember important details in a suspenseful manner.  I was really disappointed in this because I could see huge potential for the idea of a drug that allowed people to relive their best (or worst) memories.  How many people who had lost loved ones would fall into a drug induced haze so that they could hold them one last time?  How many people with traumatic experiences would be further devastated by reliving those memories on a bad trip?  How might people use the drug in order to cheat on entrance exams or stay ahead of the curve - imagine if it had to be tested for the same way steroids are tested for in the sporting world!  Unfortunately, The Memory Hit didn't explore any of those avenues.  We had one instance of cheating on tests and two where a character took the drug to try and find the big bad guy.  In both of the latter, they devolved into the dullest relationship montage ever. 
The novel is filled with YA cliches.  The oh-so-special main character whom every boy wants.  The love interests who fight over her.  The absentee parents - lets pause a moment there - what the heck was wrong with her father?  First of all, she escapes a fire, goes to the hospital, runs around the town, goes back to the hospital and her father is nowhere to be found?  If my kid was in that situation and I hadn't heard from her I would be blowing up her phone and scouring the streets!  To make matter worse, when her (ex?) boyfriend pushes her away, leaving her bleeding against a brick wall, her father (who apparently was watching the whole time) waits for her ex-ex boyfriend to decide whether or not he was going to fight the guy and then calmly sends the kids home.  What the Hell?!  My father would murder the guy for even THINKING about laying a hand on me.  
The characters are B-O-R-I-N-G.  They have zero personality and make THE WORST DECISIONS EVER!  I feel like this whole problem could have been solved if any of the teenagers had gone to the police or at least one of the adults (like Jag's awesome dad).  They also do things that seem completely out of character with little or no coercion or explanation.  There is a twist of the most ludicrous invention.  The identity of the Big Baddie makes NO sense and I do not buy that this person was able to run a successful drug ring and risked it all in order to blackmail one kid into dealing.  Not to mention the fact that arson is the easiest murder weapon to go awry and at least one of the places they torched should have had tons of video cameras or the fact that no police seem to be bothering to try and find whoever keeps setting places on fire!

Bottom Line: Despite a killer idea for the drug causing all of these issues, The Memory Hit squanders it and is just a mess.  Do No Hit It. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

16 and up
Sex: Kissing
Violence: Death by Fire, Death by Gunshot, Fist Fighting, Child Abuse
Inappropriate Language: Shit
Substance Use/Abuse: Use of fictional drug, underage drinking, smoking

Monday, May 18, 2015

Spelled by Betsy Schow

Title: Spelled
Author: Betsy Schow
Release Date:
June 2, 2015
Rating: 4/5

Cover Impressions: Loooooooove this cover.  The shoes are so sparkly and a great updated version of the ruby slippers.  The font in evil villain green is pretty classic as is the curl of the smoke around the magic mirror. 

The Gist:
Fairy Tale Survival Rule #32: If you find yourself at the mercy of a wicked witch, sing a romantic ballad and wait for your Prince Charming to save the day.

Yeah, no thanks. Dorthea is completely princed out. Sure being the crown princess of Emerald has its perks—like Glenda Original ball gowns and Hans Christian Louboutin heels. But a forced marriage to the brooding prince Kato is so not what Dorthea had in mind for her enchanted future.

Talk about unhappily ever after.

Trying to fix her prince problem by wishing on a (cursed) star royally backfires, leaving the kingdom in chaos and her parents stuck in some place called "Kansas." Now it's up to Dorthea and her pixed off prince to find the mysterious Wizard of Oz and undo the curse...before it releases the wickedest witch of all and spells The End for the world of Story.

Like many princesses she knows, Dorothea is cursed.  A wicked witch put a spell on one of her ancestors that she would burn the entire world, but she messed up and it skipped a generation, or many.  Without knowing WHICH princess was a dangerous to the world as they knew it, all the women in Dorothea's line have been forced to stay within the castle walls.  As if that isn't bad enough, Dorothea must endure a long line of suitors hoping to gain her hand, and control of the kingdom.  When her insurmountable mother finally settles things by choosing a husband for her, Dorothea wishes that everything could be different - until it is.  With her kingdom in shambles, her parents missing and an evil witch taking up her mother's crown, Dorothea makes a run for it.  She is accompanied by Kato, her not so handsome anymore Prince, and Rexi, the servant with a loud mouth and sticky fingers.  With nothing to go on but the cryptic directions of her own green-skinned witch, the trio attempt to escape the witch and restore the rules of magic to the kingdom.
Spelled is a truly fun novel.  It takes place in a world where fairy tale kingdoms are melded together like squares on a quilt.  This allows for some really amusing connections between the various characters and worlds.  There are connections to The Wizard of Oz, like Dorothea's love of designer footwear and her guardian/witch named Verte, that are bound to make any reader smile.  The author also makes references to modern day words, but with a fairy tale twist.  And ebook is an enchanted book where the pictures move.  The storage area for all things is, literally, the cloud.  These pepper the plot with humor and were such an amusing touch. 
The main characters are interesting, if not overly complex.  Dorothea's character development is the standard spoiled brat learns to be a better person, which is fine.  She also has some internal turmoil over the use of her powers and whether she is the hero of the story or the villain.  Kato is a little dull as love interests go.  I think I liked him more when he couldn't talk.  Rexi, on the other hand, has some of the best lines in the book.  Despite being a servant, she is certainly not subservient and refuses to bow down to the royals and is constantly sniping at one or both of them.  She also has a serious issue with stealing anything that isn't nailed down, which sometimes comes in handy, and other times gets them into trouble.  I am really hoping that any subsequent books go a little further into her backstory as I am curious how she came to live at the palace with such an anti-royal attitude. 
Where Spelled really shines is in its side characters.  We have a wizard with a serious Dorothy obsession, a massive Chimera with a heart of gold and Hydra - who switches heads AND personalities (not to mention mixing spells in a crockpot!)  The world these characters inhabit is equally strange and wondrous, with new surprises around every turn.  I was slightly disappointed in the villain.  We just didn't spend enough time with Griz (at least when she wasn't tossing lightning balls) to really flesh out her character and make her truly terrifying. 
Each chapter in Spelled starts out with a quote or rule from fairy tale characters or books.  My favorite was:

"There's nothing really to fear but fear itself.  And trolls.  Fear and trolls.  Oh, and I guess gigans and dragons too.  And can't forget wicked witches. Yeah, I guess there really is a lot to fear."
- Prince Charming, excerpt from an interview in Hero Beat
These add an extra sense of amusement and charm to the novel.  The plot is non-stop, with lots of action.  We have Kingdoms being torched, houses falling from the sky and a giant tinman bent on destruction.  The main characters face traitors and deception from all sides and the reader is left guessing who they can trust up to the very last minute.  While nothing has been mentioned about this being the first book in a series, it is pretty clear from the ending that there is more to the story and we have yet to see the last of Dorothea, her shape shifting fiance or their foul-mouthed friend.  I, for one, will definitely be waiting on the next one.   

Teaching/Parental Notes:

12 and up
Sex:  Kissing
Violence: Knifeplay, Death by Magic, Death by Drowning, 
Inappropriate Language: None
Substance Use/Abuse: None

Great For Readers Who Loved:

Monday, May 11, 2015

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

Title: I Am Princess X
Author: Cherie Priest
Release Date:
May 26, 2015

Cover Impressions: Love the cover art.  The princess looks amazing (I am a big fan of the chucks). 

The Gist:

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X?

When May looks around, she sees the Princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There's an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby's story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon---her best friend, Libby, who lives.

As young girls, May and Libby bonded over the creation of Princess X.  May wrote the stories, Libby drew the comics.  Both girls lived vicariously through the Princess' adventures until the day Libby died.  Supposedly.  For years, May dreams of her friend misses the days they spent creating a world for themselves.  Until the day she discovers a sticker that looks remarkably like their Princess X.  This leads her on a search throughout the city for more proof and she quickly realizes that there are just too many parallels for the comic to be coincidence.  With the help of her neighbor and hacker (with slightly criminal leanings) Trick, May begins to delve deeper into the world of Princess X and realizes that Libby's death may not have been as real as she had believed.  She is still out there, and she has left clues so that Libby can find her and bring her home. 
I Am Princess X is a really unique blend of graphic novel and traditional storytelling.  Sprinkled throughout the book are pieces of a graphic novel that features a princess trying to escape her captor and find several items of power in order to save her kingdom.  The illustrations are beautiful and the story of Princess X melds with the mystery of the missing girl in a really interesting way.  I do wish my review copy had included more of the illustrations, but I will definitely be picking up a finished copy when it is released.  
I enjoyed the characters but I do wish there had been more development and that they had been more consistent, for example Trick is given the backstory of having made some poor decisions, losing his scholarship and doing whatever he can in order to earn enough money to pay for school himself.  However, once he meets May, he drops all of that in order to run around the city looking for clues to Libby's whereabouts.  I was pretty happy with the complete lack of a romantic storyline.  That is downright refreshing in a YA novel and I felt that May had a pretty realistic relationship with her parents.  

Unfortunately, I Am Princess X suffered from that same old issue when writers who are used to writing for an adult audience make the foray into young adult.  They just don't seem to give young readers enough credit.  This leads to a strange style of writing where they appear to "dumb things down", as if the writer thought she had to make it easier in order for a teen to "get it".  This meant there was lots of repetition of things that we already knew (like the fact that she went to Libby's funeral or that she prefers hot chocolate to coffee), bland statements of facts and recaps of events, with little to no nuance to the mystery itself.  It also made reference to tech and social media in a very "look, I'm a cool adult, I know what twitter is" kind of way.   
Ultimately, I am Princess X is a suspenseful story about a missing girl.  And it does this very well.  May searches for clues in the comics and then those translate into real life adventures to find the "keys" Libby has left behind.  There is a real sense of danger as the bad guy is your Criminal Minds type kidnapper with an intelligent manner of planning and some serious tech savvy skills that keep the kids running.  
It is a great read for those interested in a quick mystery and it will really appeal to fans of graphic novels who want to explore how the genre can work within a traditional story.   

Teaching/Parental Notes:

12 and up
Sex:  None
Violence:  Kidnapping, Drowning, Gunplay
Inappropriate Language: None
Substance Use/Abuse: None

This and other reviews can be seen on Young Adult Books Central

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie

Title: The Nowhere Emporium
Author: Ross MacKenzie
Publisher: Floris
Release Date: May 18, 2015
Rating: 4/5

Cover Impressions: 
I like it.  But I don't love it.  With the incredible description of a shimmering and sparkling, black, brick building, I would have loved to see more of it and not have the title take up over half of the cover.

The Gist:

When the mysterious Nowhere Emporium arrives in Glasgow, orphan Daniel Holmes stumbles upon it quite by accident. Before long, the 'shop from nowhere' -- and its owner, Mr Silver -- draw Daniel into a breathtaking world of magic and enchantment. Recruited as Mr Silver's apprentice, Daniel learns the secrets of the Emporium's vast labyrinth of passageways and rooms -- rooms that contain wonders beyond anything Daniel has ever imagined. But when Mr Silver disappears, and a shadow from the past threatens everything, the Emporium and all its wonders begin to crumble. Can Daniel save his home, and his new friends, before the Nowhere Emporium is destroyed forever?

Review:Daniel Holmes never expected his life to be anything special.  Orphaned at a young age, he is running from the bullies at his group home when he stumbles upon the most magical of buildings.  The Nowhere Emporium's front room holds all manner of knick-knacks to tempt a young boy, but the back is where the real secrets lie.  This is where the owner, Mr. Silver, has created wonderous rooms that enthrall and enchant his visitors.  He offers Daniel a home there, and a place as his apprentice, assuming he can learn to work the magic that keeps the building running.  But, when the magician disappears and the walls start crumbling, it is up to Daniel to find a way to save the emporium, and the friends he has found within.

The writing in The Nowhere Emporium is nothing short of magical.  From the very beginning, we are treated to the most enchanting description of the building: "bricks the color of midnight, bricks that shimmered and sparkled under the glow of the gas streetlamps."  This continues through room after room, each more wonderful than the last.  My favorite had to be Mr. Silver's study

The walls of the square room beyond were completely hidden under rows of bookcases.  He narrowed his eyes, squinting at the walls, and realised upon closer inspection that there were, in fact, no bookcases.  There were only books.  The books were the walls.  And in that moment it hit him: every object in the room, from the armchairs to the tables to the lamps, was made from books, or the covers of books, or pages that had been torn from books.  The floor was made of books.  The ceiling was made of books.  A miraculous fire was burning in a fireplace made entirely of books.

The book takes on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feel as we explore the wonders and get to know the strange tenants, including Ellie, Mr. Silver's daughter and the only other person who can help Daniel save the Emporium.

While the description of the building itself was fantastic, I was a little disappointed in the characterization.  Daniel and Ellie are fairly well fleshed out, but the other people who live in the emporium are a little flat.  There was a great opportunity to create some truly standout characters, but instead they felt as if the details were left on the cutting room floor and the characters that were left, just served to be in the right place, at the right time, to help Daniel's story.  I also questioned the actions of the main characters.  It seemed strange that Daniel, who was orphaned at a young age and grew up in a group home, would so easily trust Sharpe when he attempts to gain access to the emporium.  Likewise, it was odd that Mr. Silver, who clearly spent a great deal of energy to protect the Emporium and his daughter, would disappear at the first sign of trouble.  But of course, if he had stuck around, Daniel would not have been able to become the hero.

The plot precedes in a timely manner and has some great surprises.  My favorite was the human movie projector who requires a hair as payment to show any memory.  Since this is a middle grade book, we can be fairly certain that Daniel will prevail in the end, but there are some moments where I found myself wondering who would make it out with him.  There are casualties lost during the battle, but the ending is very satisfying and we are left with a sweet and haunting close that is as magical as its opening.

Maybe, if you truly believe, you will walk through the red curtain, and witness the Wonders and secrets of the Nowhere Emporium with your own eyes.

I can honestly say, I will spend the rest of my life looking.  
Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:  10 and Up
Sex: None
Violence: Knifeplay
Inappropriate Language: None
Substance Use/Abuse: Drinking

This and other reviews can be seen on Young Adult Books Central