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Eleanor & Park

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Finally! I feel like I've been waiting to read Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell forever. It's really only been months but still. My library was taking ages to get a copy and I had to wait until it fit in the book budget. Yay for birthdays! I really enjoyed this book. Rowell is great at really making you feel the emotions of her characters. I was not surprised at the announcement on Saturday that it won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award. It is certainly deserving of it.

Eleanor is surviving life and that is the best she can currently hope for. Starting a new high school, her first day gets off to the worst start when no one makes room for her to sit. Finally a begrudging boy orders her to just sit next to him and he's not exactly friendly. Park doesn't want to share his bus seat, especially with some one as odd as Eleanor, but as the weeks pass little things begin to intrigue him, like the song titles she writes on her book covers and the fact that she is covertly reading his comics along with him. Soon he slowly begins to share his passions with her. She borrows his comics and he makes her mix tapes with the songs she wants to hear. They begin talking, they get to know each other, they fall in love. But Eleanor's life is a disaster waiting to explode into devastation, and even the power of first love isn't going to be able to fix it.

Eleanor & Park is a sweet and wonderful love story, but that is not all it is. The way the romance between Eleanor and Park unfurls is everything a great first love should be. I loved the slowness of it all, and how epic a moment simply holding hands is for these two. The descriptions of their interactions are great, and it was wonderful to see an actual relationship develop where there was communication. This is nowhere near love at first sight, it is a gradual thing. Underneath the sweetness of this story there is a seething ugliness to contrast it. Eleanor's life is a desperate struggle. She shares a room with four siblings. She has few clothes and only one box full of possessions she can call her own. Her step-father is a monster. Her entire family lives in daily terror. This is heart breaking to read.

Eleanor is a wonderful character, one who is likable and sympathetic but has definite flaws. It is easy to see why Park finds her so weird at first. It is easy to see how he gets frustrated with her, but seeing the bigger picture of her life makes her a truly dynamic character. Park is not as well developed, and if it weren't for one particular scene I would have come away saying he is too good to be true. Even with that he seems a little to ideal, but I can't mind because Eleanor needed that kind of hero in her life.

I love the way Rowell writes, so simply and yet with layers of meaning. She is a writer who says much with few words and I always respect that. She also wrote one of the best metaphors of all time: She's what would happen if the devil  married the wicked witch, and they rolled their baby in a bowl of chopped evil. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, it's real. Sometimes a little too real for me to enjoy without qualification. Generally, I  don't mind strong language in books particularly if it lends realism to the story. The language in this book certainly does that. However, there were so many instances of using God and Christ along with other words that it made me  personally uncomfortable.

So is this YA or adult? I think it is both. This is why age designations for books bother me so much. Yes, it's about teens and teens will enjoy it and find themselves in it even with the 1986 setting. Adults will appreciate this book, even ones who don't regularly read YA because they should also find themselves in it.

Note for Concerned Parents: There is a lot of strong language and some intense romantic situations. There is also quite a bit of violent and ugly family dynamics going on.

Originally posted here.

Dodger

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Confession Time

Confession #1: I have confessed this before. I'm not a Dickens fan. I LOVE A Tale of Two Cities. It is one of my all time favorite books. Everything else he wrote? Not so much. I have never been able to make it all the way through Oliver Twist.

Confession #2: Until Dodger I had never read anything by Terry Pratchett. I would ask why some of you never told me to. But you did. Repeatedly.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he's...Dodger.

Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London's sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He's not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl--not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.

Dodger is a character written for me to love:
And he cried real tears, which was quite easy to do, and it shocked him inside, and he wondered if there was anything in the boy called Dodger that was totally himself, pure and simple, not just a whole packet of Dodgers. Indeed, he hoped in his soul that Simplicity would embrace the decent Dodger and put him on something approaching the straight and narrow, provided it was not all that straight and not all that narrow.
Yes, he appealed to all of my love for heroes who are truly honorable but flirt with the darker side of life. And manage to keep their sense of humor alive while doing it. I also adored Pratchett's portrayal of Charles Dickens. These two characters together-watching them interact-make this a fascinating read from start to finish.

Charles Dickens is not the only famous name to pop up in this tale. Dodger also encounters Sweeney Todd-the Demon Barber himself-Benjamin Disraeli, and Sir Robert Peel. Less well known personages of Victorian London make an appearance as well. The novel is considered a historical fantasy because Pratchett manipulated some facts such as dates. He also gave Dickens a large role and a personality to go with it. This might be a problem for me in the hands of a lesser author but Pratchett got the tone and feel of the Victorian era so well, and that matters to me far more.

In many ways the plot felt like a Victorian version of Bruce Alexander's Fielding series, including its wordiness and sometimes unnecessary detail. I liked this far more though because Dodger is such an interesting and engaging character. One that will have any reader cheering for him to win the day and anything else he can get his hands on. 

Originally posted here.

Strands of Bronze and Gold

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Fairy Tale retellings are my weakness. I will read them no matter what. I often get tired of reading the same old stories done over and over. So when Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson came along and I found it was a retelling of the Bluebeard tale I was super excited. Not only is that far from over done, but what a fantastically creepy story to transform into a novel.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.
Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

I would love to hear the opinion of someone who didn't know the Bluebeard tale going in. I think it will make a huge difference in how the reader responds and reacts to the book. Knowing the story I felt incredibly frustrated with the pacing. The first half was hard to get into and the pacing had a lot to do with that. It took a long time for anything of true significance to happen. This story comes with quite a lot of set up. Even once things picked up a bit it still took forever to get to the point. It was only 30 pages from the end (I read an e-galley) that Sophie makes THE DISCOVERY. And then it was another 10 pages or so before the climatic confrontation making the end incredibly rushed.

Bernard is a spectacularly creepy villain and I do think that this is the main strength of the novel. How he treats Sophie, the way he weaves his web around her, how he pulls her in was so well done. There are some scenes that are stomach turning repulsive and unpleasant to read. I often found myself wanting to stop because I simply felt like I was being suffocated in the same way Sophie is. The sense of doom Nickerson creates is a credit to her. Knowing the story I was a bit impatient with Sophie at times wanting her to figure out something was off faster, but one has to make allowances for the fact that she is so young and innocent.

Overall I'm torn on this one. I can't say I enjoyed it but, other than the pacing, it is well done. I think young teenage me would have loved it-the Gothic horror of it, the atmosphere, the suspense. All of that is well done. Knowing the world better-being the mother of a young daughter changes my perspective somewhat and mostly it just made me entirely too sad and uncomfortable. I do appreciate that Nickerson has written such an authentic story.

Content Warning: Bernard is an old lecher. He presses unwanted, and at one point violent, physical touches on Sophie. This book may be a trigger for any who have experienced sexual abuse or assault.

I read a galley of this provided by the publisher via NetGalley. Strands of Bronze and Gold is available for purchase on March 12.

Originally posted here.

Odette's Secrets

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Odette's Secrets by Maryann Macdonald is a historical fiction novel based on facts from the life of a real girl who fled Paris and lived as a hidden child during the Nazi occupation because she was Jewish.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

For Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris, nowhere is safe. So when Odette Meyer’s father is sent to a Nazi work camp, Odette’s mother takes desperate measures to protect her, sending Odette deep into the French countryside. There, Odette pretends to be a peasant girl, even posing as a Christian–and attending Catholic masses–with other children. But inside, she is burning with secrets, and when the war ends Odette must figure out whether she can resume life in Paris as a Jew, or if she’s lost the connection to her former life forever.

Stories of the many Jewish children who hid within other families and pretended to be some one they aren't are fascinating to me. Odette's story is no different. The first person narration helps the reader really see through Odette's eyes and fell the things she is experiencing. The story spans five years, from the Nazi invasion until the end of the war, which makes the story complete and gives it full resolution. I thought the author did a great job conveying Odette's confusion and struggles over what is truth and what is fiction. The atmosphere of the book conveys the danger and horror of the period without being too harsh or frightening for younger readers. That is a fine line to balance.

The book is written in free verse and that is not a style I enjoy and this did impact how much I liked the book. If a book is in free verse I need to see it as a necessity, like there was simply no other way to tell the story and that just wasn't the case here. In some places I felt it lent a stilted awkwardness the prose that was jolting more than anything else. Being in free verse makes it a quick and easy read which is always a good thing to have on hand for kids who don't like or can't read longer books.

Kids who love historical fiction and want to read more about World War II will enjoy this book.

I read a copy of this book made available on NetGalley. Odette's Secrets is on sale February 26.

Originally posted here.

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars

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Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh would not have been a high priority read for me were it not chosen to compete in this year's SLJ Battle of the Books. The premise intrigued me, but I probably would have waited until my library received a copy. BoBs prompted me to buy it and push it to the top of my TBR. I'm grateful for this because I LOVED it. (BoB, this more than makes up for making me buy Life: an Exploded Diagram last year.)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Fate: Is it written in the stars from the moment we are born?
Or is it a bendable thing that we can shape with our own hands?
Jepp of Astraveld needs to know.
He left his countryside home on the empty promise of a stranger, only to become a captive in a luxurious prison: Coudenberg Palace, the royal court of the Spanish Infanta. Nobody warned Jepp that as a court dwarf, daily injustices would become his seemingly unshakable fate. If the humiliations were his alone, perhaps he could endure them; but it breaks Jepp's heart to see his friend Lia suffer.
After Jepp and Lia attempt a daring escape from the palace, Jepp is imprisoned again, alone in a cage. Now, spirited across Europe in a kidnapper's carriage, Jepp fears where his unfortunate stars may lead him. But he can't even begin to imagine the brilliant and eccentric new master--a man devoted to uncovering the secrets of the stars--who awaits him. Or the girl who will help him mend his heart and unearth the long-buried secrets of his past.

Historical fiction. It attracts and repels me. I love it when it's done well, but it is so often done wrong that I am more than a little afraid to read it anymore.  Jepp, Who Defied the Stars is done right. Marsh brings 16th century Netherlands to vivid life in this story. The lives of the commoners, the court, academics, the pull between superstition and science, a world clinging to the past while on the brink of a new era is all wonderfully rendered. And at the center of this marvelous world is a dwarf by the name of Jepp.

Jepp's voice and character is the strongest factor of a novel that is full of strengths. As a reader I could relate to his plight even though I've never experienced anything like it. I felt sympathy for him. Most of all I wanted to see him succeed and find happiness. I wanted him to break free of his chains and live the life he could. Marsh truly makes him a real person, one you can feel for and love. As a result his story is a gripping one that I couldn't put it down even in its slower moments. (I read the whole thing in one glorious sitting.) The other characters have just as much life and depth as Jepp. Both antagonists were a little flat and predictable, but they serve their functions well.

I enjoyed how Marsh presented the pull between fate and free will. She brings up questions everyone struggles with at some point and arrives at the inevitable conclusion. Jepp's journey to this is one that will fascinate readers and that they can also identify with.

This is one of those books that doesn't fit nicely into any age classification. The bookstore I purchased it from had it shelved with the MG books. The protagonist is in his mid-late teens like most YA. The story is one I can see appealing to adult readers, even ones who don't normally enjoy "children's books". It is a great story whatever the age of the interested party who picks it up.

Originally posted here.

Beswitched

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Beswitched by Kate Saunders has two elements I love: a boarding school and magic. It made it on to my TBR for that reason. It moved its way to the top when it was shortlisted for this year's Cybils.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A magic spell has spun Flora into the past. She's mysteriously swapped lives with a schoolgirl in 1935! No iPod? No cell phone? No hair products? How will she survive?
Now Flora's a new girl at St. Winifred's, where she has to speak French at breakfast, wear hideous baggy bloomers, and sleep in a freezing dormitory.
But lots of adventures in the past are amazing even if they are not forever. How will she find her way back to the 21st century?

Flora is a behaving like a spoiled brat at the beginning of the novel though in a way most MG readers will be able to identify with. She does improve, but it took a little too long for me to ever really warm to her as a character. The story is an interesting one and I like the contrast between modern life and 1935 life. The magic that pulls Flora to 1935 was performed by three of her classmates, fortunately the one she is sharing a dorm with so she has help. I couldn't help but feel really sorry for the other Flora who had lived in India all her life and suddenly found herself in modern day England with no one to explain to her what had happened or why. She has no significance to this story but I couldn't help but feel really sorry for her

Despite its short length I found myself getting bored several times. There's not a lot of action and a lot of school detail. Normally I would by okay with that, but for some reason I just couldn't be made to care. It was probably due to my dislike for the characters more than that the story was boring itself. I knew the twist at the end was coming, but I think there are many MG readers who will be delightedly surprised with the way it all turns out.

Beswitched was entertaining enough, but not a book I could love. I tried to get Bit to read it to see what she thought. Our library has the version with the cover shown on the right and she took one look at it and said, "Ugh. That's very pink. I don't think I want to read that." There was no changing her mind.

Originally posted here.

Hattie Ever After

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Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson is the sequel to her incredibly popular much beloved Newbery  Honor book Hattie Big Sky. It's been a while since I read the first book. I remember enjoying it, but I enjoyed Hattie Ever After even more. Probably because I am a city girl and my eyes sort of glaze over reading anything about the prairie. Also Hattie Ever After is really well crafted.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

After leaving Uncle Chester's homestead claim, orphan Hattie Brooks throws a lasso around a new dream, even bigger than the Montana sky. She wants to be a reporter, knowing full well that a few pieces published in the Arlington News will not suffice. Real reporters must go to Grand Places, and do Grand Things, like Hattie's hero Nellie Bly. Another girl might be stymied by this, but Hattie has faced down a hungry wolf and stood up to a mob of angry men. Nothing can squash her desire to write for a big city newspaper. A letter and love token from Uncle Chester's old flame in San Francisco fuels that desire and Hattie jumps at the opportunity to get there by working as a seamstress for a traveling acting troupe. This could be her chance to solve the mystery of her "scoundrel" uncle and, in the process, help her learn more about herself. But Hattie must first tell Charlie that she will not join him in Seattle. Even though her heart approves of Charlie's plan for their marriage, her mind fears that saying yes to him would be saying no to herself. Hattie holds her own in the big city, literally pitching her way to a byline, and a career that could be even bigger than Nellie Bly's. But can making headlines compensate for the pain of betrayal and lost love? Hattie must dig deep to find her own true place in the world

The greatest strength of the novel is Hattie's voice. From word one she is there with you, her own independent person telling you a story. Hattie is distinctive, a character not to be confused with any other or the reader's own self. Lively, independent, and head strong Hattie sets out to make a name for herself, to find her own place in the world outside of anyone else's shadow. I admire how Larson used Hattie to highlight the emergence of women  in the work force following World War I and the struggle they had, while at the same time maintaining the light tone of the novel. Hattie is a vibrant and happy girl and even when knocked down she finds the hope and light in her situation. There are times when the reader can see Hattie's naivete is allowing others to take advantage of her. At the same time, without it she wouldn't be Hattie.

The setting is a close close second to voice as far as strengths go. Larson makes 1919 San Fransisco come to life giving just enough details to help you envision it without overdoing it. This is a fine balance in historical fiction and Larson is a pro at it. I could see the city, the Chronicle's newsroom, the hotel where Hattie lived, all of it. The people of the city are captured well too and, while some are stereotypical, none are flat.

I loved reuniting with Hattie and following her on yet another adventure, watching her grow and change yet again. This was an almost perfect read. The end felt rushed, but as the outcome was so much to my liking I'm having a hard time caring too much about that.

This is a review of a copy received from Random House via NetGalley. Hattie Ever After will be available for purchase on February 12.

Originally posted here.

Scarlet

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I enjoy a good Robin Hood retelling. I truly do. And because I don't have a great love for the source material I don't really care what people do to it. I was looking forward to reading Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen. Unfortunately the experience did not quite live up to my expectations. It is a good swashbuckling adventure story. But I had some issues.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.
It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.

Scarlet is a knife wielding loyal member of Robin's band. She feels the desperation of the poor they help deeply and works hard to help maintain them. It is her brilliant thieving skills and espionage tactics that keep the band in gold and information. There is a lot of worthiness in her character. When you add to that the camaraderie of the band and the action, I can see why many have enjoyed this one. The plot is predictable but action filled, and there is plenty to keep you on the edge of your seat

I couldn't fully enjoy it though because I really couldn't like either Scarlet or Rob. Much of Scarlet's worthiness of character comes at the expense of his. The two of them have zero chemistry too. All of their conversations are miserable competitions to prove which one is more awful. (I'm the worst most despicable human ever. No I am. No I am. Seriously do you know how many awful things I've done? I bet I've done worse. Repeat. Repeat. Ad nauseum.) This is their bond. Despite being "the hope of the people" Rob was a complete and total jerk. His whole I-hurt-you-because-that's-the-best-way-to-hurt-me routine should send Scarlet running for the hills, particularly after he called her a whore. And then barely apologized for it by using the self loathing excuse.  John isn't much better with his inability to understand that no means no and "I don't want to be grabbed and kissed" is not an invitation to do just that. And for those paying attention, yes this means there is a love triangle here. Scarlet has all the boys wanting to love, protect, and kiss her. She is one of those special ones. 

For those who, like me, are history nerds and care there are some anachronisms that may bother you depending on how exercised you get about those. One of the guards searching the forest at one point says, "That's not on." The word fiancee is also used several times and that word wasn't being tossed around 13th century England. Betrothed. It's betrothed.


There are many people who have adored this book. I am in the minority here. If you are in the market for a swashbuckling adventure then this might work for you. What bothered me clearly won't bother everyone.

Originally posted here.

Navigating Early

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Clare Vanderpool won the 2011 Newbery Award for her debut novel Moon Over Manifest (my thoughts). You can bet that many will be keeping their eyes on her new MG novel, Navigating Early. I personally enjoyed this one far more than the first, though not unequivocally.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
At the end of World War II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his mother’s death and placed in a boy’s boarding school in Maine. There, Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great black bear in the nearby mountains.

Newcomer Jack feels lost yet can’t help being drawn to Early, who won’t believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school, they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear.
But what they are searching for is sometimes different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters, each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel, while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others in their lives.

Early is a wonderful character. In today's world he would be labeled as someone with Asperger's. In the 1940's setting of this novel he is simply labeled as strange. When Jack first meets him he tries to decipher: Was he straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange? Jack's opinion on this wavers as the story unfolds but in the end he summarizes it perfectly. Early has a strange convoluted and amazing mind. Early's character is so incredibly likeable in all of his strangeness. The way he "sees" the story in the numbers of Pi and how he tells it is intriguing.

Jack is the voice of the story, the character through whom we see everything and I had a harder time with him. He is lonely, confused, and feeling stranded. He is most certainly a sympathetic character. He is also delightfully snarky at times. And I love a good snarky character. But there are times when he doesn't sound anything like the 13  year old boy he is characterized as. He sounds an awful lot like I imagine the author might sound. He speaks with beautiful imagery and description for sure, but it doesn't entirely fit with the picture I had of his character.  

The concept for the book is an ambitious one. The plot gets off to a slow start, but once the adventure starts events are exciting. The boys' journey is paralleled by the story Early is telling of Pi. A story he reads in the number itself. This was well executed and interesting. Mathematicians may take issue with the fact that Vanderpool made up some of the digits of Pi to tell the story

In many ways this is a book that has my different inner readers torn. Adult reader me thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn't put it down. Parent-teacher me thinks it will be a difficult sell. And it is too long to teach a unit on, at least for my 4th-6th graders (who I only see once a week). It is definitely a pick for readers who enjoy a more introspective voice

Navigating Early is available on January 8, 2013. I read a copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.  

Originally posted here.

Favorite Reads of 2012

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So here they are. My top 10 favorite reads of 2012. This year's surprise? The YA outnumber the MG. That's never happened before. And only one of my choices was published before 2012.

Links are to my reviews:

Above World by Jenn Reese

The Broken Lands by Kate Milford

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

The Drowned Vault by N.D. Wilson

Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

Peaceweaver by Rebecca Barnhouse

Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson*

Seraphina by Rachel Hartma

Your turn. Let me know your favorites too!

Stay tuned to see my most anticipated of 2013 list on Tuesday. Then it will be back to reviews as usual on Thursday beginning with Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.

*My review of this one won't publish until closer to the release date in March. Just let me say that it is excellent in every way and you should go and pre-order it right now.

Originally posted here.