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Something Real

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From the moment I discovered what Something Real by Heather Demetrios was about, I wanted to read it. I am not a fan of reality TV shows that follow families around and document their lives, partly because I just feel like the worst sort of voyeur, but mainly because I feel it is an exploitation of the children involved who have no real choice or agency in what is going on. A book that explores this sounded fascinating. I was also a little hesitant because the synopsis made me think it could go places that I was uncomfortable with. The book did make me uncomfortable, but for all the right reasons and it is truly an excellent novel.


Synopsis:

Seventeen-year-old Bonnie™ Baker has grown up on TV—she and her twelve siblings are the stars of one-time hit reality show Baker’s Dozen. Since the show's cancellation, Bonnie™ has tried to live a normal life, under the radar and out of the spotlight. But it's about to fall apart . . . because Baker’s Dozen is going back on the air. Bonnie™'s mom and the show's producers won't let her quit and soon the life that she has so carefully built for herself, with real friends (and maybe even a real boyfriend), is in danger of being destroyed by the show. Bonnie™ needs to do something drastic if her life is ever going to be her own—even if it means being more exposed than ever before.


Bonnie Baker is finally recovering from the reality TV circus that was her life for so long. She is in school for the first time and is now going by Chloe (as that is her preferred name, it is what I will call her from here on out). She and her brother Benny are moving on with their lives. They have friends. They have a life. Benny even has a boyfriend, and Chloe has a boy in her life that could be ready to move from crush to relationship. Their lives are thrown in to turmoil when their mom and stepdad decide to reboot the family show that caused so much turmoil in the first place. And no one will let them out of it. This is particularly hard for Chloe, who was a big part of the reason the show was canceled in the first place after she swallowed her parents' medicine cabinet full of pills and had to have her stomach pumped at the age of 13.


Chloe is a bit of a mess as you can imagine. She suffers from what anyone can see is PTSD. Anytime a camera goes anywhere near her she freaks out. Building up enough courage to take her senior picture was an ordeal. Then she goes home to find the cameras have invaded her life again: The telltale signs of my childhood are everywhere: vans with satellite dishes on top, the Mercedes with the familiar BRN4REEL license plate, and the ropes of thick black cables that crawl around the house like prehistoric predators, squeezing everyone inside until they suffocate. That is Chloe's voice, full of pain, truth, and harsh cynicism. She can also be funny, snarky, and playful and it all combines to make her so real. Her journey through this book from terrified victim to a girl who grasps her own future and has agency over her own life is a truly remarkable one. It is filled with a lot of drama and bumps in the road, but watching her grow and learn from each one makes this a fantastic read. It is a book that I actually had to put down and walk around a bit while reading due to the amount of rage I was feeling toward her mother, who is the most selfish narcissistic leech on the planet. She is a terrible human being all round. The relationship between them is also portrayed realistically. Beth is Chloe's mom. Chloe feels loyalty and even love toward her despite everything. Chloe is manipulated, her privacy is invaded, and she is never listened to, but she still feels this fierce need to protect Beth and her siblings. It is a perfect picture of what a warped and dysfunctional child/parent relationship is like.


The book has a large cast of characters from the TV people, family, and school. The individual younger siblings are not focused on much, which is okay because Chloe spends little time with them really. The three oldest, who are all the same age due to a surrogate carrying two of them, are the main focus of the sibling dynamics and I loved this part of the story. Chloe and Benny have always been extremely close and the rebooting of the TV show brings them closer than ever. They both have reasons for hating it. Benny worries about Chloe falling back into depression. Chloe worries about Benny drinking too much like their father. Benny is also concerned about his relationship with his boyfriend, Matt, which they have been keeping secret. The bond and solidarity between these two is something special. They have each other's backs and work together to preserve their sanity and lives. Benny's twin sister Lexie has a more complicated relationship with them. She actually liked the show, but is dealing with her own issues from it even if she doesn't seem to realize. The three of them grow closer and become more of a team as the book progresses and I loved tracking their relationship. Great sibling stories are one of my favorite types of stories and this is certainly one of those.


It is also a great story of friendship. The way Chloe's friends react to the news that she is Bonnie Baker is very realistic, but the way they circle around her and work hard to show her how much they care is extraordinary. They are helpful. The give good advice. They push Chloe to see things in new ways. And they are incredibly supportive of both her and Benny.


Then there is the romance, which was my greatest concern going in. I really didn't want this to be a broken girl finds boy who fixes everything story. And it is not. Hallelujah. Patrick is pretty amazing and mature for a teenage boy, but boys like hime do exist in the world. He knows what he wants out of life and one of those things is Chloe. He is not afraid to pursue her even when she is trying to push him away for his own good. But he is not a magic presence that fixes Chloe's life. He gives her a lot of support and help. He is someone she can talk to and go to for comfort. In the end though, it is CHLOE who works to save herself. She makes the choices. Patrick is there to have her back and help her in those and I LOVED this about their relationship. It definitely had its moments of drama, but what relationship between 17 year olds doesn't come with that? It is the way they dealt with it all that made their relationship a positive aspect of the book.


Basically this book was everything I wanted it to be and more. It is working with the same themes and ideas Don't Call Me Baby and You Look Different in Real Life do, but this book does all of it so much better.


Content Warning: language, underage drinking and smoking, discussions of sex

Originally posted here.

The Lost Conspiracy

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Last week was the week for reading books I hadn't read yet by my favorite authors. Frances Hardinge is definitely one of my favorites. While I don't always love each individual book, I always appreciate them for the works of art they are. The Lost Conspiracy (Gullstruck Island-UK) is one of those books that swept me away on a tide of beautiful imagery and left me clinging to each page ready to know what happened next.

Synopsis:

On an island of sandy beaches, dense jungles, and slumbering volcanoes, colonists seek to apply archaic laws to a new land, bounty hunters stalk the living for the ashes of their funerary pyres, and a smiling tribe is despised by all as traitorous murderers. It is here, in the midst of ancient tensions and new calamity, that two sisters are caught in adeadly web of deceits.
Arilou is proclaimed a beautiful prophetess—one of the island's precious oracles: a Lost. Hathin, her junior, is her nearly invisible attendant. But neither Arilou nor Hathin is exactly what she seems, and they live a lie that is carefully constructed and jealously guarded.
When the sisters are unknowingly drawn into a sinister, island-wide conspiracy, quiet, unobtrusive Hathin must journey beyond all she has ever known of her world—and of herself—in a desperate attempt to save them both. As the stakes mount and falsehoods unravel, she discovers that the only thing more dangerous than the secret she hides is the truth she must uncover.


The Lost Conspiracy is a book that does so much right it is hard to no where to begin. The setting is beautifully treacherous, an island with jungles, volcanoes, dangerous aquatic animals, and cut off from any other part of the world. Harginge brings the island to life in vivid colors, sounds, and feelings. As Hathin and Arilou journey throughout, the reader goes with them and experiences it with them.


Hathin is an amazing heroine. Her entire existence is based on serving her sister. It is what her entire life has always been for. She is Arilou's quiet unobtrusive shadow. People barely even realize she is there most of the time, which works out well for her because it allows her to observe and then manipulate the situation to go where she needs it to go. This life has developed her mind into a strategic, sharp instrument for getting what her sister and her people need. These skills serve her well as her world is blown apart by a conspiracy, and it is up to her to save her sister, herself, and all the Lace people of the island. There is a strong cast of supporting characters that surround Hathin from beginning to end, changing and multiplying as the story goes on. Each of these are intriguing in their own right and fully realized (I don't think Hardinge knows how to write characters any other way), but this story is Hathin's story. She deserves all the credit and glory due her for every hardship and triumph.


The plot is complicated and twisty involving centuries of myth, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Hardinge has created a razor sharp look at colonialism and its affects with this story. The Lace are one group of the island's indigenous people. It has been a couple hundred years since the settlers came and while they intermarried with many of the other tribes, the Lace remained separate. This is mostly due to an unfortunate incident that involved kidnapping and sacrificing settlers to the volcanoes. Through the history of the island and the current politics tearing it apart, Hardinge depicts perfectly how a clash of cultures, a misunderstanding of tradition, and the easy way prejudices can be used to ignite hate, fear, and violence can cause a ripple affect that is felt and used for generations. I like that while there is clearly a villain, there is also a lot of horror that occurs because ordinary people allow themselves to be manipulated, carried away by a mob mentality, or simply don't stand up and do what's right. I like the shades of gray in that, something else Hardinge is typically good at depicting.


Some favorite quotes that show Hardinge's command of language and her themes:

There was a shout of laughter at the idea of the little Lace girl kidnapping the burly towner and taking him away to sacrifice.  It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it.

Soon somebody would say something that was sharper and harder, but it would still be a joke. And then there would be remark like a punch in the gut but made as a joke. And then they would detain her if she tried to leave and body would stop them because it was all only a joke...


And so ended the conference of the invisible, in the cavern of blood and secrets, on the night of the mist.


"You see," Therrot added in what was probably meant to be a comforting tone, "revenge doesn't need to be face-to-face. Maybe you're not made for sticking a knife in someone...but would you feel the same way about planting a little fistful of leaves and roots?"

Hathin tried to imagine herself using her sickle to dig root space for a sly, slow killer. The idea did feel different, but she was not at all sure it felt better.

My one complaint is that it is a little long. Hardinge's books often are yet usually I can't think what would be cut out. Here I did feel there was a lot of detail in the middl portion that could have been pared down or combined to make the pacing better. This is one small detractor for me in a book that is full of amazing elements. Hardinge is a fantastic storyteller and if you haven't read this or her other books, you definitely need to pick one up.

Originally posted here.

The City in the Lake

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After reading The Floating Islands a couple of years ago, I immediately put The City in the Lake on my TBR. There it sat despite the fact that I adored The Floating Islands, House of Shadows, and just really like Rachel Neumeier as a person too. After reading and loving Black Dog earlier this year I decided I needed to read this sooner rather than later and the Shelf-Sweeper challenge gave me the perfect opportunity for that. And I loved it so much.


Synopsis:

THE KINGDOM’S HEART is the City. The City’s heart is the King. The King’s heart is the Prince. The Prince is missing.
Ever since the Prince disappeared, nothing has been right in the Kingdom. Something has disturbed the strange, old magic that whispers around its borders . . . something cunning and powerful. And the disturbance extends to the farthest reaches of the Kingdom, including the idyllic village where Timou is learning to be a mage under her father’s tutelage.
When Timou’s father journeys to the City to help look for the Prince, but never returns, Timou senses that the disturbance in the Kingdom is linked to her—and to the undiscovered heritage of the mother she never knew. She must leave her village, even if it means confronting powers greater than her own, even though what she finds may challenge everything she knows. Even if it means leaving love behind.


I would really love to know what it is like to live inside Rachel's head, because all of her books are distinctly different, wildly inventive, and not what I think I'm getting when I start reading. You would think by now I would stop being surprised by that, but I continue to be amazed at her creativity and how her writing style alters to fit each world she has created. In The City in the Lake we get a quest story set in a fantasy world. If you think you know what that looks like and you've seen it before, you are wrong. You haven't seen this one. I loved the world here and how vast it is, yet contained in a rather small setting for the story. It is impressive how Neumeier is able to convey that vastness with few words. (Those who read this blog regularly know that is a trait my favorite authors all tend to share.) I loved the idea of the two cities, one in the lake and one on it, that reflect each other. The Forest in all its mysterious darkness is brought to full intimidating life and Timou's small village is rendered in just the right way. Reading this book, I actually felt like I was in all of these places and experiencing them in the same way as the characters.


The book's action centers around the royal family and Timou, a Mage's daughter, who never knew her mother. When the prince and then the King go missing, the King's older bastard son is left in charge and Timou's father has disappeared into the city to try and help. Timou follows when he doesn't return and discovers twisted secrets and a whole lot of family drama. There are a lot of characters involved and they are all well developed despite the shortness of the novel. I loved how Timou is a character of quiet strength. She has incredibly powerful magic and yet is not at all tempted by power. She is patient, stubborn, and hardworking. Her feelings are always kept under tight control, a trick she learned from her father, but one that has her confused when she begins to have feelings for Jonah, one of the men in her village. Jonah also has a quiet strength. He is not a sword wielding, run-into-danger type of hero, but his heroism and what he chooses to do with it are even more impressive as a result. I also really loved both of the princes, who are very different in all the ways brothers are. Neill, the bastard, is a fascinating character. He is the one who caught my imagination the most due to the choices he makes-and the ones he didn't but could have. Cassiel, the heir to the throne, is young and has many traits you would expect from being the younger, favored son, but he also has a core of steel and courage that is impressive. His charm and humor only make this more appealing (even if I was choosing between them, I would choose to like his brother more.)  In dress, attitude, and actions, the villain is one of the creepiest I've read in some time. The symbolism Neumeier uses to introduce the concept of the villain into the story does an excellent job of adding to this terrifying calmness of evil the villain presents.


The City in the Lake is exactly the sort of fantasy I love and now I'm kicking myself for not having read it sooner. The world, characters, and story all combine to make an enthralling read and Neumeier's evocative prose put me right in the story. Woven in to the magic and intense political drama is also a great tale of siblings. All of my favorite things in a fantasy plus stuff I never knew to ask for. READ IT NOW.


Originally posted here.

The Homeward Bounders

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I am still making my way through Diana Wynne Jones's backlist. I probably wouldn't have read The Homeward Bounders for a long time to come as it's currently out of print in the the US (except as an e-book) if it weren't for a conversation on Twitter I had with Sage Blackwood in which she said she heard some consider it to be a metaphor for life as a military kid. My interest level rose exponentially and she was kind enough to send me an old used library copy to read. (Much thanks for that.)


This book, like all of Jones's books, has had many covers. I'm using the latest UK cover because I really like these covers for her books.


Synopsis:

"You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner." When Jamie unwittingly discovers the scary, dark-cloaked Them playing games with human's lives, he is cast out to the boundaries of the worlds. Only then does he discover that there are a vast number of parallel worlds, all linked by the bounds, and these sinister creatures are using them all as a massive gamesboard. Clinging to Their promise that if he can get Home he is free, he becomes the unwilling Random Factor in an endless game of chance. Irresistible Diana Wynne Jones fantasy adventure, featuring an insect-loving shapeshifter, an apprentice demon hunter and a whole host of exotic characters clinging to the hope that one day they will return Home.


The Homeward Bounders unfolds slowly. For the first part of the novel Jamie is all alone simply telling his story about how he came to be a Homeward Bounder and the way the worlds work. As he tells his tale little things about Them (the players) are revealed, and what is revealed is rather chilling. They have no regard for lives. They are ruthless in pursuit of the game they are playing. The game they are playing is us and our lives. And the lives of countless other beings in countless other worlds. We are all pieces on a giant board game helped along by computers and players (the identity of who is a brilliant reveal). Who hasn't wondered about that at some point in their life? This is the sheer genius of Diana Wynne Jones, taking the things everyone ponders and expanding on them and turning them into a brilliant story. Jamie is thrust out of his world after discovering the game. A "discard", he is forced to wander the worlds in search of home. He is alone for a great deal of his search and that loneliness comes off the page and affects the reader. Finally Jamie is able to find some companions. Helen is special in her world, but has been exiled because she also discovered too much.   Joris is a demon hunter apprentice, a slave with so much devotion he was dragged into life as a Homeard Bounder by a demon he refused to let go. These three are misfits and they form a strong if somewhat squabble team. A team that doubles when they are able to convince some actual non-Bounders of what is going on. But of course, this can't last forever. They are not going to allow them to remain together without a fight. I really enjoyed Jamie as a character all alone, a wander traveling the worlds. And I loved his interactions with the family he cobbles together from the people he meets. Helen and Adam are particularly fun to watch him with.


The Homeward Bounders is tragic, far more so than a lot of Jones's books are. It is a sort of tragic that is full of purpose though. The trials are not for nothing and the people suffering them learn to adjust, though it leaves scars and yearnings they will never shake. Yes, I can see why some people have likened it to life as a military brat. There were some sentences that made me cry because, yes, they do describe the feelings you have, the feeling that home is a place out there somewhere if you could only just find it, but deep down you know you never will because you missed that chance. That your life is out of your control. That you form attachments only to have them ripped away from you so why bother forming them at all anymore. There is something utterly profound in the conclusion of the book that relates as well. The lack of choice the Bounders have about how long they stay in one place (but they do know approximately how long it will be) and their lack of choice in where they end up next speaks to it as well. Whether Jones did this intentionally or not, I can't help but wish I had this book growing up.

The Homeward Bounders is not a book everyone is going to like, but it is perfect for me. I think it is one of Jones's best actually. It doesn't have the charm and quirk of Chrestomanci, Howl, or Derkholm, but it still has a sly and ironic humor that keeps it from being too tragic. And in the end it really is a beautiful story that is brilliantly crafted.

Originally posted here.

Pointe

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I never read any reviews for Pointe by Brandy Colbert because I knew I was going to read it no matter what and I have a policy against reading reviews of book I know I'll read so as not to be influenced. I had heard it was powerful. I had heard it was heartbreaking. I knew it had something to do with a kidnapping. Other than that I had no idea what I was getting into. Whoa. This book is a HARD read, and not only because it is about hard things. It's because Colbert gave us a protagonist with a voice that makes you feel her pain in every way.


Synopsis:

Theo is better now.
She's eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.
Donovan isn't talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn't do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she's been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.


Theo is a dancer with tremendous potential. She is a daughter with two loving and supportive parents. She is a friend who cares and strives to be compassionate and helpful. She is a broken girl whose life was shattered and the saddest part is she doesn't see exactly HOW it was shattered. She knows it was, but she mistakes it for something it wasn't and therefore has never dealt with it. And that is what Pointe is essentially about. It is a book about a girl who think a thing about herself and important people in her life that is a lie. It affects her behavior in everything she does. (Other than ballet which is her happy place.) This is a story about a broken girl having to realize how she was broken and who broke her, and how she can be mended. I'm not entirely comfortable using exactly those words, because obviously people are not vases. It's more complicated than that, but those words convey enough without giving too much away. Colbert pulls the reader into Theo's story with a deft hand. Hints are given here and there. The story circles around and gives pieces of Theo's story a piece at a time as she confronts them. It is not easy reading this and seeing how she thinks of herself and the actions she is driven to at times in search of a feeling to make it all better. She is a character you can empathize with and whose story should make your heart break. I love the journey she went through in this book and the hard subject matter it dealt with. The way it all came together in the end was thoroughly satisfying to me. I like when a book deals with harsh realities, but doesn't leave out hope for the future and recovery.


I'm keeping this short, not because I didn't truly love this, but because I think it is one of those that needs to be experienced rather than read about. There are going to be people who take issue with some of the things in this book, but the truth is it confronts a topic that needs confronting and confronts it with unflinching realism. It is worth it for that.


Content Warning: Underage Drinking; Recreational Drug Use; Some Sexual Content; Possible Triggers


Originally posted here.

The Night Gardener

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Jonathan Auxier has a way with words. That was evident with his debut novel, Peter Nimble's Fantastic Eyes, and his latest offering, The Night Gardener, proves it beyond doubt. Atmospheric, mysterious, and chilling, it is a book whose words don't just beg to be read, they demand it.

This is a review of an ARC received by the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

Molly and Kip are recently arrived in England from Ireland. Alone in the world, they seek employment and find it with the Windsor family in an old house in a creepy and disturbing place called the sour woods. Along the way they meet an old storyteller named Hazel who gives them directions and warnings. Arriving at the Windsor family home, they discover a dilapidated house with a massive ugly overgrown tree right up next to it and a mysteriously ill and fading family living inside. As the days pass, Molly and Kip find their new situation to be far more dangerous than they ever imagined. For inside the house at night, a mysterious shadow of a man prowls from room to room and the inhabitants are plagued by nightmares that encapsulate their worst fears. But the house has a mysterious and inexorable pull on those who live there,  so leaving may not be an option.

Molly has a way with words and stories. She weaves her words together to create tales that are almost magical in their power to make others believe her and want to do as she says. Kip is talented with gardening. He loves the plants and tends them well. Together they are an intrepid team telling the type of story I love most, a sibling story. Within the house live another set of siblings, Alistair and Penny. Alistair is an unpleasant gluttonous bully. Penny is a little girl longing for someone to love her, play with her, and tell her stories. Kip and Penny, the younger siblings in each set, are easy to love and root for. As a reader, I felt a desperate need for neither of them to be injured in any way. Kip is hardworking and simply longs to be like other children despite his lame leg. Penny is exuberant and full of life and energy. Watching what the house and its secrets are doing to her is not pleasant. Molly and Alistair, the oldest two, are a bit harder to fully embrace. Alistair is meant to be unpleasant. He is there as a foil, mostly for Molly, who, while likeable, has plenty of flaws. The most serious of which is her inability to separate story telling and lying. She is also exceedingly stubborn and does not want to listen to anyone's counsel but her own. I think she will be relatable to child readers, as will Kip and Penny.

I also really liked how the adults are active and present participants in the story as well. The Windsor parents are even more caught up in the house and its secrets than the children are and are in need of help and rescue. Hazel, the old story teller, is also an important part of the story, and I like how she was there for information and guidance but didn't interfere with what the children were accomplishing.

On one level The Night Gardener is a creepy tale about a mysterious old house and the malevolent force at work inside it.  The plotting and pacing are done just right to pull readers in and keep them in, caught up in the story, on the edge of their seats wondering what is going on. It is exactly the right level of creepy too. Kids who want a book to creep them out and will expect exactly that after looking at the cover, will not be disappointed. As the eerie mysteriousness of the plot unfolds it is Auxier's brilliant use of imagery and the cadence of the writing that holds one spellbound. This would make a superior read aloud, but it is also beautiful read silently. This is not just a creepy story for the sake of having a spine-tingling read though. (Although that's always good fun on its own.) It is a story of family, courage, greed, selfishness, forgiveness, despair, love, hope, and redemption. And justice. (I really liked that element.) And all of that is layered in with the characters and action so seamlessly. The characters live it and the reader sees and feels it. Most of all, it is a story about the power of story and words. Auxier uses each and every one of his carefully to bind the reader to him, just as Molly does with hers. I love this realization Molly comes to at one point: "I think I figured it out. Hester asked me what the difference between a story and a lie was. At the time, I told her a story helps folk. Helps 'em do what? she asked. Well, I think I know the answer. A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens 'em. And the lie does the opposite. It helps you hide." That is this story in a quote.

I would caution care and knowledge of the reader when giving this to younger kids reading MG books. There is enough darkness and horror to frighten the sensitive, but I think it is exactly the right amount for the majority of MG readers. The amount they long for and need, balanced with a great deal of hope and triumph as well. It is basically everything I love and look for in a book.

I read an ARC received from the publisher, Amulet Books, at ALA Midwinter. The Night Gardener goes on sale May 20th.

Originally posted here.

The Chapel Wars

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Lindsey Leavitt is an auto-buy author for me. If she writes it, I will read it. No one does quite what she does in the realm of contemporary fiction, writing realistic stories that deal with hard issues but manage to maintain a lighter tone and feel. The Chapel Wars tackles some harder topics than her previous work, but is still a light quick read and is full of the little snatches of wisdom I have come to appreciate in her books. She is eminently quotable.


This review is of an ARC received from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.


Synopsis:

Sixteen-year-old Holly wants to remember her Grandpa forever, but she’d rather forget what he left her in his will: his wedding chapel on the Las Vegas strip. Whatever happened to gold watches, savings bonds, or some normal inheritance?
And then there's Grandpa's letter. Not only is she running the business with her recently divorced parents, but she needs to make some serious money--fast. Grandpa also insists Holly reach out to Dax, the grandson of her family's mortal enemy and owner of the cheesy chapel next door. No matter how cute Dax is, Holly needs to stay focused: on her group of guy friends, her disjointed family, work, school and... Dax. No wait, not Dax.
Holly’s chapel represents everything she’s ever loved in her past. Dax might be everything she could ever love in the future. But as for right now, there's a wedding chapel to save.


Holly is a fascinating main character. She is a math whiz and worked hard to get into a special magnet school where she could concentrate on business management even in high school. Her friends are all guys with the exception of her best friend Sam's girlfriend, who Holly mostly just tolerates. Her family life is not optimal. Her parents are recently divorced leaving her brother in a constant state of angry rebellion and Holly confused. But Holly finds feelings messy. She pushes them down and doesn't face them or release them. They are not neat and controlled like math equations. When her grandfather dies, she inherits an almost bankrupt business, and meets an attractive boy who happens to be from the enemy chapel across the parking lot, Holly finds her tightly controlled existence spiraling out of her control. I liked how this affected her. She makes some choices and responds in some ways that are not healthy and won't make a lot of sense to people who thrive on emotion, but her responses are highly realistic. Dax is even more flawed than Holly. I don't think Leavitt has ever written a hero as deeply flawed as Dax. He has experienced a lot of tragedy in the past year. Tragedy he is responsible for. He is working out a lot of his issues over this still, and on more than one occasion chooses to drown them in alcohol. He isn't drinking enough to have a problem  yet, but it's obvious he's on his way if he doesn't change something up. There are many aspects to Holly and Dax's interactions that would indicate she should be wary, yet there are equally as many aspects that point to Dax being exactly what Holly needs. Again,  I enjoyed the realism in this. Holly is wary, but she also sees the good in him and is willing to give him a chance. This is by far the most complicated relationship dynamic Leavitt has written and I think it works well for the story she is telling. I enjoyed how their relationship developed over time, but there was a definite irresistible attraction between the two of them. I particularly love how Holly assessed their situation on their second date:

We glowed at each other. Beamed. Radiated. I did not know that like could be like this. Like love, just not fully realized. I did not love this boy, because to love someone is to know them. But every moment I was with him made me happy, and every moment I wasn't with him, a small piece of me wondered where he was and what he was doing, like there was a satellite in our hearts.


As in all Leavitt's books, family dynamics play a large role in the story. Holly was incredibly close to her grandfather and is devastated by his death. She then has to jump into running his business, much to the irritation of her father and her grandfather's assistant. And she is fighting a losing battle. They owe more money than they have and could possibly earn in the three months Holly has to turn things around. Grieving someone under such circumstances is not the best of scenarios. Holly must also contend with her family's fractured dynamics. Again Leavitt excels at writing a great sibling story here between Holly and her younger brother James. James is angry and not hiding it. His behavior is moving rapidly toward delinquent in order to get attention. He is also fiercely loyal and protective of his sister and a piano prodigy. I adored every interaction between James and Holly and the interactions between James and Dax. Holly's best friend, Sam, and his girlfriend, Camille, are also important characters. Camille and Holly grow closer as the story unfolds, Camille helping Holly and becoming a confidant. At the same time, Camille and Sam have their own problems.


There are a lot of characters and much is happening to all of them, and yet Leavitt managed to make them all feel so real. Everything that occurs, makes perfect sense and the story never feels weighed down or too much. My one quibble with the story is that Dax's drinking wasn't taken quite seriously enough, like it was excusable because he is a nice guy even when drunk. However, Holly's reactions are believable and her siblings and friends do caution her so I can't see this as a major problem.


I think this is Leavitt's most ambitious novel yet in terms of character development and realistic hard situations. While I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Going Vintage, it is very close. Anyone who loves Leavitt's other books should definitely check this one out. And if you haven't experienced her unique brand of contemporary fiction, this is a wonderful novel to start with.

I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Bloomsbury Children US, at ALA Midwinter. The Chapel Wars is available for purchase May 6.


Originally posted here.

The Islands of Chaldea

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The Islands of Chaldea is the last novel from Diana Wynne Jones. Almost finished when she died and completed by her sister, it is sad to think that it the last time we will get a peek into her vast and varied imagination. However, I am MUCH HAPPIER with this as her final book than I was with Earwig and the Witch being her final. While not as wonderful as my favorite DWJ books, it is still very good. And a not as a good as the best DWJ is still far superior to almost everything else.


This is a review of an ARC received from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.


Synopsis:

Aileen comes from a long line of magic makers, and her Aunt Beck is the most powerful magician on Skarr. But Aileen's magic has yet to reveal itself, even though she is old enough and it should have, by now. When Aileen is sent over the sea on a mission for the King, she worries that she'll be useless and in the way. A powerful (but mostly invisible) cat changes all of that-and with every obstacle Aileen faces, she becomes stronger and more confident, until her magic blooms.


Aileen is the next in a long line of Wise Women. She is supposed to have magic and power, but she messes up her Initiation and is left wondering if she is bound to be a disappointment. This is hard for her living in the shadow of her Aunt Beck, who is highly powerful and a strong, decisive, no-nonsense personality. Aileen is smart and resourceful. She pays attention. And even though she feels inferior at times, she uses these situations as an opportunity to learn. When Beck is taken out of commission and unable to lead their expedition, Aileen rises to the occasion and truly comes into her own. She must think quickly and have much courage, and is a truly great heroine. The cast of supporting characters is as diverse and quirky as one would expect from a Jones novel. On the quest with Aileen and her aunt are a prince, a boy exiled from his land, a priest, a parrot, and a strangely magical ugly cat. I loved every single one of them, their interactions, and the dynamic of the group. Aileen and Ogo (exiled boy) are my favorites, while the others provided a good deal of comedy relief. Relief sometimes needed as the group encounters more than one Queen who wishes them ill will, a ship captain who doesn't seem to care whether they survive the voyage or not, cultural differences that almost see them arrested more than once, and finally the confrontation with a villain willing to destroy the world to gain power over it. Good good stuff.


The Islands of Chaldea are varied and the inhabitants of each have different cultures and norms, but they are all connected. You can see the influences of Scotland, Ireland, and England in them but they are their own places as well. The world-building is excellent as always and comes with no explanation. They are an experience and the reader does experience them thoroughly as the intrepid group of heroes makes their way through them in an attempt to reach the one blocked island that has been separated from the rest by a barrier. It is a fascinating tale and one that moves quickly. I did thing some things at the end were a bit rushed and could have used more explanation. (How things resolved in Prince Ivar's situation for one. That was a bit abrupt.) For the most part though I was delighted with the story from beginning to end. It is Aileen's story above all and I love how everything worked out for her.

Fans of DWJ are not going to be able to resist this one, nor should they try. I was nervous going in, but that was soon replaced with joy and delight as I sank into the engaging and fun story.


I read an e-galley made available via the publisher, Greenwillow Books, on Edelweiss. The Islands of Chaldea is available for purchase on April 22.


Originally posted here.

Boys of Blur

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have been a huge fan of N.D. Wilson's book since I read his first, Leepike Ridge. I pre-order his books as soon as I can and devour them all. I was so excited when I discovered he had a new stand alone, the first since Leepike Ridge, coming out this year. Then everyone else (who doesn't read their ARCs in order of publication date, or at least doesn't get as behind as I sometimes do) started singing its praises and my excitement and expectations increased. Basically, I had astronomical expectations for this book going into it and it managed to surpass them.


This is a review of an ARC from the publisher.


Synopsis:

When Charlie moves from Palm Beach to the small town of Taper, Florida, he discovers a different world. Pinned between the everglades and the swampy banks of Lake Okeechobee, the small town produces sugar cane . . . and the fastest runners in the country. Kids chase muck rabbits in the fields while the cane is being burned and harvested. Dodging flames and blades and breathing smoke, they run down the rabbits for three dollars a skin. And when they can do that, running a football is easy. 
But there are things in the swamp, roaming the cane at night, that cannot be explained, and they seem connected to sprawling mounds older than the swamps. Together with his step-second cousin Herman "Cotton" Mack, the fastest boy on the muck, Charlie hunts secrets in the glades and on the muck flats where the cane grows secrets as old as the soft earth, secrets that haunted, tripped, and trapped the original native tribes, ensnared conquistadors, and buried runaway slaves. Secrets only the muck knows.


Boys of Blur is a story of brotherhood, rivalry, football, family, and Beowulf. Yes, Beowulf.


Charlie has a past that haunts him and also fills him with hope and purpose. His mother left his dangerously violent father when he was only five. Charlie remembers the fear and what it was like to be running from him. He has a step-dad now though who is everything that is wonderful and encouraging and an adorable little sister. As the story opens, Charlie's past and present are colliding. Back in the town where both his father and step-father grew up, and where both men currently are working, Charlie is facing a present that is both haunting and hopeful too. This story is about him finding the courage to face the things that frighten him, let go of the things eating at his soul, and learning to run with the best of them-not away from things but toward them. He is a character who pulls at the reader and draws them into the story. His step-second-cousin, Cotton, who claims him as just a cousin, welcomes him to his new home and teaches him a bit about the town and the running. The two boys bond like most boys do: running and getting into trouble together. I really liked this aspect. The cast of other characters are wide and varied. This is a short book, less than 200 pages, and yet the entire town comes to life. Each character has a distinct voice and that includes all of the adults. I particularly liked Mack, Charlie's ex-football star step-father. I also appreciated how the storyline with Charlie's real father was handled.


This sounds like fairly typical MG contemporary realistic fiction at this point, but it isn't. Because there is something not quite alive but not quite dead wreaking havoc in the flats. Old rivalries are tearing the town apart. The little jealousies, bitter musings, and grudges people have cradled in their hearts are taking over their whole souls. Everyone is turning on everyone else. Charlie and Cotton discover it is due to an ancient evil trapped beneath the muck and swamp lands waiting for her time to take over the halls and bodies of men. Soon the boys find themselves having to face this evil and decide what to do about it. They are brave and foolish. Just as 12 year old boys are. And it all works together so well. The plot is a reworking of Beowulf, the evil being the mother who is birthing man devouring monsters. She wants to burn the world. It is up to Charlie to stop it. I really appreciated how he had so much assistance though. This is one thing Wilson always does well in his books. In a world of MG and YA novels where adult supervision and assistance are glaringly, sometimes ridiculously, absent, Wilson never abandons his young protagonists to fight their monsters alone. There are always strong, capable, and loving adults there to help.


The themes explored in this novel are sweeping in scope. For such a short, quick read, the book is brimming with symbolism and thematic greatness. What makes a family, what holding on to the negative aspects of life does to a person, when to stand up for right, having courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and knowing what it is you are living for (so you can know what it is you are willing to die for) are all pulled into Charlie's story. Themes Wilson explores in most of his books, but they all are worth exploring repeatedly and he does it so darn well. There is also a great deal of diversity in the book, a thing we need more of and is always nice to see. Charlie is white, his step-dad is black. I loved how this wasn't a big deal, it just was. They make some jokes about it, but they're jokes that clearly come from a place of comfort and familiarity with each other. A knowledge that they are family no matter.


The imagery and descriptiveness of the book are pretty much perfect. As I read, I felt like I was right there with the boys. I could feel the stifling heat, the burning, the pain. And the words just flow together so well:

The bicycle pegs swayed beneath Charlie's feet. He felt strange moving so quickly while standing so still, like a man on a chariot. Gravel crunched beneath the tires and Cotton's shoulders rocked under his hands. Moonglow loomed on the horizon. or maybe it was the sky-kiss of distant lights. Charlie's skin prickled as night air parted around him. Every bit of him was hungry to feel and to remember.

Florida darkness washed over him, and Charlie Reynolds filled his lungs with it. Maybe he didn't belong in this place, but he belonged in this moment. It smelled like rich earth and hidden water. It smelled like fire.


And if all of this weren't extraordinary enough, Wilson managed to write a small town story that is not over flowing with quirkiness. THANK HEAVENS.


This line is probably my favorite though because it pretty much sums up the south: Football and church don't cancel for nobody.


Boys of Blur is a book that will be an easy sell for any reader, reluctant or book devourer. Football, monsters, boys who are heroes, the fast pace of the writing, and overall shortness are going to make it a hot commodity. If you know a child buy it for them. If you work with children buy more than one to have on hand. My students love Wilson's books and this is going to send some of the boys into a state of pure bliss. I may get trampled when I book talk it.


I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Random House Books for Young Readers, at ALA Midwinter. Boys of Blur is available for purchase on April 8th.

Originally posted here.

A Face Like Glass

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A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge was one of the books I had to read for the YAMG Book Challenge. It was the only book potentially destined to come my way in the brackets that I had not previously read. Why? Because it has not been published in the US yet. And this is a TRAGEDY.


Synopsis:

In the underground city of Caverna the world's most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare. They create wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned. Only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear — at a price.
Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell's emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed ...


This is the story of Neverfell, a wide-eyed, sheltered, compassionate, cheerful, inquisitive girl who longs to explore and see the world outside the front door she has been locked behind as long as she can remember. Characters like this usually drive me insane. There is so much goodness in her. An unbelievable amount of goodness. I normally can't stand this, but Neverfell caught me and held me and made me love her. And even though I knew she was heading for a host of awful discoveries that were going to change and disillusion her, I found I didn't want them to change her. She is naive and far too trusting. There were moments when I wanted to jump in the book and knock her upside the head, but her naiveté is so genuine and believable. She has no reason for cynicism or distrust. She was never taught the possible cruelties of the world, and her world is cruel indeed. Where she is, no one can show the emotions they feel in their facial expressions. Except for Neverfell. People pay to learn how to make expressions and tailor them for the appropriateness of a moment, so they are never genuine. Except for Neverfell. She is the perfect tool and in constant danger as a result. She utterly refuses to see this and stumbles through life with a warm generosity that ordinarily makes me want to walk away from a character and never look back. In this case I wanted to shelter her and help her, meaning I was very much able to relate to one of the other characters in the story she comes across. One more cynical and not quite trustworthy. There is more to Neverfell though. Part of her curiosity is a result of her scientific mind. She is an amazingly talented mechanic. She is also fiercely determined and, it turns out, capable of being sneaky and ruthless herself which made me like her even more. (I know. I obviously have issues.) Everyone thinks she's mad, but really her mind just works differently. So much is made about her appearance, but it is really the way she thinks and feels that throw the people around her off. She is different. Other. And that means she is to be feared or used. Both at the same time occasionally.


Which brings me to the themes in the book. Through Neverfell and the people she comes in contact with, those who want to use her, those who want to protect her, and those who end up working with her, Hardinge paints a picture of a society we all can recognize because we live in it. Despite the world of Carverna being distinctly different from our own, it is exactly like our own. The twisted political maneuverings, the exploitation and intentional subjugation of those that can be forced to work, the falseness of society, and the power of belief in a system is brought out in every word on every page. But it is not at all forced. It is rendered through the contrast of Neverfell and the world around her, thorough her desire to do good and her ability to spark the same in others, through the details in the world building. It is all brilliantly woven together.


Then there is the writing, which is as top-notch as it gets. Beautiful imagery, evocative descriptions, and soul searing emotion are all on display. The world of Caverna is one I could feel, see, taste, and smell. The twistiness of the writing mirrors the twistiness of the world, leaving the reader slightly confused and light-headed in places, exactly as I imagine life in Caverna would be. I felt at times like I was being smothered under the weight of it all just as Neverfell was. I wanted her to get out from underneath that mountain and feel the sun and wind and rain. Hear birds sing. I expect good writing when I sit down with a Frances Hardinge novel, but feel she outdid my fairly high expectations with this one.

Some examples:

No, despite her best efforts she was a skinny, long-boned tangle of fidget and frisk, with feet that would not stay still, and elbows made to knock things off shelves.


There were many who called the Court a jungle, and with good reason. It had a jungle's lush and glittering beauty. The people who dwelt in it, in their turn, were not unlike jungle creatures...There are many dangers in the jungle, but perhaps the greatest is forgetting that one is not the only hunter, and that one is probably not the largest.


He felt a shock, as if her faith was a golden axe and had struck right through his dusty husk of a heart. The heart did not bleed, however, and in the next moment its dry fibres were closing and knitting back together again.


A Face Like Glass has a lot of political intrigue and complexity to it as well. It demands a lot of its readers, whether adults or children. And I love that. Books intended for a child audience who don't talk down to them or underestimate them are the best books there are. It never shies away from the harder more difficult truths it is trying to convey, but simply puts them in a package a child can see, understand, and accept. And running through all of the darkness and hard truths is brightness of hope. This book is everything that I love and it will have a place on my bookshelf forever.

Originally posted here.