The Daughter of Smoke & Bone Book Review

The Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

Karou is an artist, blue haired and mysterious to all her friends in Prague. How does she speak so many languages? Where does she go on her errands? And why does she draw monsters in her sketchbook?

What Karou chooses not to tell them is that she is the foster daughter of monsters, raised by Brimstone, a chimera magician who exchanges wishes for teeth. Despite her fear of him and desperate desire to know what Brimstone does with those teeth, Karou is happy with her life until she meets the beautiful, winged Seraphim, Akiva. With her world falling apart around her, Karou must delve into a past she has never known, even if she may come to regret it.

Crafted with hauntingly beautiful prose, Laini Taylor has created a Romeo & Juliet story just as passionate and fearsome as its muse. Taylor has created not just one but two worlds, the first, Prague, familiar and yet different enough for the setting to feel unique. The second, a world full of angels and demons, magic and pain, slowly unfolds throughout the book, and despite it being so alien Taylor deftly handles her world so that it too feels as real and slid as Prague.

When I began this book, I had my reservations and admit to some eye rolling when the "angels" were introduced. After all, isn't that the new thing? Angels and demons becoming almost as popular as vampires and zombies, right? Never mind that these angels, or Serpih, aren't exactly the biblical, winged creatures that tradition would have us believe. As a ardent activist against frivolous romance, I readily admit that although I thought this book was exceptionally well-done, I did find some of the romance cloying. Let me make it clear though, I hate romance stories in my action flicks so obviously a story that is taking its cues from Romeo and Juliet is not going to be that appealing to someone like me.

I would have like there to be a little less flashback/backstory. The final third of the book is almost all flashback and although I recognize its importance, I wished there had been a different way, but this in no way impedes the beauty of the book.

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone is dark, sensual, stunning, terrifying, beautiful, and Just wait until you find out what they do with all those teeth.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell Book Review

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Alex and Connor have been hearing fairy tales all their lives, but neither ever dreamed that one day they may be a part of them. Sucked into The Land of Stories, Alex and Connor must find a managerie of objects in order to escape. As they travel between kingdoms, the twins encounter witches, goblins, trolls, wolves, princesses, mermaids, and fairies all of which either hinder or help the siblings in their quest.

Ah, celebrity authors. Many celebrities have gone the way of writing children's books. Some like Emma Thompson, Julie Andrews, and Jamie Lee Curtis have written fabulous children's books that have gone well beyond any celebrity. Others like Kristi Yamaguchi, Madonna, and Jay Leno proved that some people, even when they announce they would love to write children's books, should not be allowed to. I am afraid Chris Colfer falls into the second category.

Full of over-used tropes, flat characters, strange POV shifts, terrible similes, an elementary school use of description, incredibly didactic, and a plot that lacked imagination, I feel like I should have put the book down on chapter three but felt confident that the book could only get better. How wrong I was.

Each time Colfer used a simile I found myself cringing. Like this fabulous one, "Mrs. Peters was staring at her as if she had just witnessed a gruesome rural animal give birth." Or this brilliant one, "Alex clambered up the tree faster than any animal she had ever seen in a documentary." There were many others, so many that I began talking to the book. Too often my reading was punctuated with, "You have got to be kidding me."

Alex and Connor have very little character arcs and felt so much like your classic smart kid/slacker stereotypes that it became rather boring. Alex is smart and emotional, a Hermione Granger who is even more unlikable. Far too often Alex ends up thwarting their plans because she feels the need to "experience" The Land of Stories or help the various characters they come across. Connor is the goof-off with a mouth, the comedic punctuation to the end of every line. If Alex isn't busy asking fairies about their feelings, Connor is beside her stupidly protesting having to do something that could very well save them both. At no point did these characters learn or grow.

Perhaps the worst part was the plot itself. Two children, trapped in one world can only return to the other if they find some magical items to make a spell. Instead of being full of danger and intrigue however, the story felt very much like a scavenger hunt. Once it was revealed that there were other ways to travel between the two worlds, all suspense was lost for it was clear that even if they couldn't get the objects, they could and would eventually get home. Never mind that Colfer was already working with a source material that has been done to death. Honestly, if you are going to do a fairy tale mash-up, you have got to do different, ground breaking, or at least funny.

But Chris Colfer wants us all to learn a lesson. That fairy tales all have morals and the supposed mores that we were taught are wrong. What Colfer's interpretation of the classics shows a lack of research and literary analysis. I can't even begin to go down this path of analysis without simply becoming angry at the lack of imagination and depth Colfer managed to rehash.

Here was the thing, there were a few characters who were good and whose stories I thought far more interesting than Alex and Connor's, that being the Evil Queen and Goldilocks. If Colfer had decided to write an entire story from the perspective of Goldilocks, I think it could have been good, because she was the only character with anything deep and emotionally resonant and Colfer may not be a good enough author to see it. His editor should have, but then celebrity authors often get away with far too much than your "regular" authors, the ones of non-celebrity status. Want proof? Look no further than the brilliantly (*sarcasm*) written novel by Snooki.

Drama Book Review

Drama by Raiga Telgemeier

Callie is your regular 7th grade theater junkie, working behind the scenes as a set designer and stage crew on her middle school's production of Moon Over Mississippi. Even with a limited budget, Callie is determined to create a set worthy of Broadway, complete with a canon that actually fires. If their production is going to succeed though, everyone will have to play a part.

In this second graphic novel for middle graders by Telgemeier tackles the drama world and all that it entails. Callie, with her purple locks and love to work behind the scenes is loveable and loyal. Similar to the autobiographic character that Telgemeier created in Smile, Callie is very much like Raina in a different setting. Being a Drama junkie myself, meaning theater not actual drama, this book felt very close to home.

The trials and tribulations of a 7th grader in the 21st century are not things I am familiar with however. I think this book handled it rather deftly, weaving in middle school crushes, friendships, break-ups, and other societal pressures. Callie has pretty solid self-esteem, but she is as vulnerable as any twelve-year-old.

Of course, as with any good book, there is always a bit of controversy, in Drama it is the topic of homosexuality as Callie becomes good friends with twin brothers, one of whom confesses that he is gay. In my bookstore alone, I have already had two customers complain about this particular aspect of the book as if we have control over whether a book is written or carried within a store, not that I would ever condone censorship of any kind. All that is to say, that those who dislike the image or idea of young adults being attracted to the same sex, they will very much hate this book and all that it represents. For those who encourage such topics, then you will love this one.

Either way, this is a well-done novel and I think it will create much discussion, hopefully of the productive kind.

Horten's Incredible Illusions Book Reviews

Horten's Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery, and Another Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans

With the discovery of his Uncle's magic tricks, Stuart (who is ten but looks younger) and his friend April are sad their adventure ended, that is until they find a piece of paper and a six pointed star hidden within one of the tricks. The paper speaks of a will, his Uncle's will that is hidden within the six different magic tricks. Once again, April and Stuart must follow the clues, a few of which, are rather dangerous in nature.

I was absolutely enchanted by Horten's Miraculous Mechanism, and am pleased to report that Horten's Incredible Illusions has just as many great puzzles, capers, mysteries, and adventure as the first. April, May, and June, Stuart's nosy triplet neighbors, play a larger part in this venture. Stuart and his dad grow closer, despite his father's constant need to use polysyllabic words. And the stakes feel just as big, although I was happy that it was the magic itself that posed danger rather than another "baddie".

This is a short, quick read, but I think young readers who love adventure and mystery with just a bit of magic, are going to love this series, and although both end very well, I am hoping to see another one soon.

Forge Book Review

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

After escaping a British prison in New York City with the help of his good friend Isabelle, Curzon knows they must head somewhere where they will be safe. When Isabelle refuses to head north though, wanting to find her sister in South Carolina, Curzon leaves her. Through a series of mishaps and lies, Curzon ends up enlisting in the Revolutionary army at Valley Forge until the end of the war. But life in Valley Forge is very difficult with men starving, dying from want of clothes and blankets, and a collection illnesses that only come from poor conditions. Curzon is willing to live under the army's yoke, but when his old master comes back into his life, Curzon must face the reality of being a black man in 1777.

I'll admit right now that I did not realize this was a sequel to Chains. As I have not read the aforementioned book, I was obviously a little confused at the beginning of Forge. Anderson does not feel the need (nor should she) to go back and explain what happened in the previous book nor who Isabelle is to Curzon. The beginning moved very quickly, so quickly in fact that I wasn't entirely sure what had happened. Curzon is out of prison and then he is wandering the woods after some kind of fight with Isabelle. There are some scenes that feel like flashbacks, but turn out to be in the present. Then we are at Valley Forge.

Here's the thing about Valley Forge, if you remember your Revolutionary War history...nothing much happened there. It was a bit cold and people died to be sure, mostly from being ill-equipped to survive the winter, but no wars were fought. I found the first half of the book to be rather ponderous since nothing terribly plot worthy happens while Curzon is living with his regiment. There is, of course, a bullying Sergeant, but there are always those in these types of books so it didn't exactly feel extraordinary.

Enter Bellingham, Curzon's former master. This is where the book takes a drastic turn and feels like a completely different book and frankly it felt a little forced. The reintroduction of Isabelle felt a little to convenient. Could there not have been some other girl for Curzon to connect with? Did it have to be Isabelle? Even the romance felt strange and forced, for if Curzon truly loved her, would he have left her?

The book itself is a fine example of historical fiction and I believe young readers will learn a lot from it, as long as they can slog through the first half.

Harry Potter and the Picky Reader

 I am a veracious reader and have worked at bookstores for exactly 12 years now. (on and off) This means that often I see new books the day they come out and get to read them before anyone has even begun to buzz about the book. This was the case with Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone in 1998. I saw it on the shelf and thought, yay, a new fantasy novel for kids. This was in the time when children's fantasy was rare and often overlooked. For most publishers, fantasy was a risk as J.K. Rowling will attest seeing as she was rejected many times based on the genre alone.

My initial thoughts were something like this: Oh, another boarding school book, this time with a fantasy twist. How kind of her to rip off all my favorite authors. Roald Dahl, J.R.R. Tolkein, Jill Murphy, Diane Wynn Jones, Terry Pratchett, T.H. White, and Lloyd Alexander just to name a few.

The writing was nothing to write home about. The plot predictable. The end? Really? Love is the reason why Voldermort couldn't touch him? Love?

As the book gained momentum, I was completely miffed by the fanatical attention the book was receiving. It wasn't terribly original and although not a bad read, wasn't the greatest book ever written. What was going on here? When the second book came out, I was shocked by how formulaic it was. Harry stays with his terrible Aunt and Uncle, meets up with friends, goes to school to solve a mystery (the mystery being whatever the title is), which he will in fact solve (because why are we reading), and Voldermort is thwarted, but not in a way that makes him gone for good. So naturally, after making it partway through the third book, I abandoned the series entirely. I barely have enough time to read the series I do like, formulaic or not, and I didn't feel that Harry Potter deserved much more of my time.

Fast forward to the present. I recently bought a new car with one of those newfangled CD players in it, which now allows me to listen to audio books. Perhaps because I don't feel like it is an extra amount of time suck since I am going to be in the car anyway, I thought that perhaps I would give Harry Potter another read...errr, listen.

It should now be pointed out that since I read the first book I have worked in bookstores for over a decade, obtained a Bachelor's degree in Publishing, worked as an intern at Children's book publisher, and then got an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adult. Perhaps you are thinking that all this education has made me cynical, like the film students you go to school and leave with an extreme dislike of all things Hollywood and a love for Wes Anderson films, but no. Instead this has allowed me to look at stories in a different way, to appreciate them for what they are, revel in their differences, and enjoy them when I can.

Harry Potter is interesting in the way of beginnings. Unlike most children's books, we begin in the head of Mr. Dursley, an adult character.  How odd, considering how little parental or adult characters are often non-existent or at the very least, on the sidelines, and yet Rowling chose to begin her book in his head. And it works. It is important that the reader understand the Dursleys before they ever get to meet Harry so that your sympathies already lie with the child based solely on their "muggleness".

Since this is the just the beginning of the book, I began to wonder what else I may have missed having read the book with no idea as to writing craft, plot development, characterization, theme, etc.

For example: In the movies the three children all have to solve a series of mysteries, using magic or whit, to get to the philosopher's stone. The three trials are so conveniently attuned to the three children's talents that it seems like Dumbledore wanted them to find it. However, in the book there were five trials and these had to do with the teachers various strengths and had nothing to do with the students. I had forgotten this part of the book and was pleased to see that things weren't as convenient as they were made to appear in the film.

That said, there are still things that bug me. The story is still not that original and agonizingly formulaic. Because this is a fantasy, we allow Harry to get away with a lot on a psychological level. I don't believe any child raised in such an abusive home would be nearly so well balanced as Harry is. And this one may be considered sacrilegious, but I don't think Harry is a very good wizard. There is this line where Hermione tells Harry, "Me? Books and cleverness? There are more important things: friendship and bravery. And Harry, just be careful." Yet it seems to me that Hermione has books, cleverness, friendship, and bravery, two of these things Harry is lacking which in my book makes him a bad student and since the only thing they are studying is how to be a wizard, perhaps he should take a cue from Hermione. At least, she is the only one I would trust to actually know the proper spells when we needed them.

All of this is to say, that I think I enjoyed Harry Potter more the second time around, but still have some of the same issues with it that I had when I read the book in 1998. I currently have the audio book of Chamber of Secrets and am hoping that I will be surprised by it as well and perhaps I too will fall in love with a series that captured the hearts of so many, although there may be no hope for this picky reader.

Kids of Kabul Book Review

Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-ending War by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books
May 15, 2012

From Goodreads: (because I can't really say it any better) Since its publication in 2000, hundreds of thousands of children all over the world have read and loved The Breadwinner. By reading the story of eleven-year-old Parvana and her struggles living under the terror of the Taliban, young readers came to know the plight of children in Afghanistan.

But what has happened to Afghanistan’s children since the fall of the Taliban in 2001? In 2011, Deborah Ellis went to Kabul to find out. She interviewed children who spoke about their lives now. They are still living in a country torn apart by war. Violence and oppression still exist, particularly affecting the lives of girls, but the kids are weathering their lives with courage and optimism. The two dozen or so children featured in the book range in age from ten to seventeen. Many are girls Deb met through projects funded by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, the organization that is supported by royalties from The Breadwinner Trilogy. Parvana’s Fund provides grants towards education projects for Afghan women and children, including schools, libraries and literacy programs.

The children in this book, wowed me with their unrelenting optimism in the face of so much tragedy. There is 14-year-old Faranoz, whose father is dead, and whose older brother takes care of her family but doesn't encourage her schooling. Even so, Faranoz goes to a meeting room with other women and has learned to read. She says, "I hope he[my brother] lets me go to a proper school one day because I like to be around books and I would like to be a doctor one day. I think I would be a good doctor. What else can I do with so much intelligence!" My heart leapt at her optimism and grew sad at the prospect that this may always be just a dream for this little girl. 

Sharifa, also 14, has a father who is an opium addict and no longer lives with them, making their life very difficult. Sharifa states, "I have decided not to be married. I want to be a doctor, and I don't want a husband that I have to take care of. I want to do good work and make a better life for me and my family." 

There are many stories from Parwais who works at the Kubal Museum, where he has learned the value of history, to Palwasha, who plays soccer with the Afghan Women's National Football Team, to Shaharazad, the daughter of a woman Afghan parliament member.

It was hard to read these stories, one after the other. The loss and devastation that war has left behind has shaped these children, yet within them they each carry a tiny spot of hope. Ellis helps create a picture of Afghanistan through the eyes of the next generation and how truly beautiful they are.

The Theory of Everything Book Review

The Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson
Peachtree Publications
October 1, 2012

In the months since her best friend Jamie died in a tragic accident, Sarah Jones has been unable to move on, caught within a spiral of self-loathing, guilt, and depression, that she cannot climb out of. Her parents, brother, friends, heck even her boyfriend Stenn, are ready for her to move on, but if they knew what had happened that day, would they be able to? With everyone breathing down her neck and threatening to take away everything she holds dear, Sarah begins the arduos task of picking up the pieces of her shattered life. Nothing is easy or fair though, as she has learned, and Sarah will have to confront some people, lose some friends, and make new ones before she can truly come to terms with Jaimie's death.

As I started to read this novel, I had this very weird deja vu feeling that only grew more pronounced as I continued. At first I chalked it up to being tired, but after guessing a major plot point twist it became clear that I have read this particular novel before. This is impossible though, seeing as the book won't even be published until October, right? Wracking my brain, I realized that it is highly possible that I may have read this manuscript as a submission while interning at Candlewick Press. I cannot say why Candlewick didn't choose to accept this book or what my comments were on it, and I didn't have much say in the acceptance process, but here is fact, Peachtree managed to get a real gem with this one

The Theory of Everything is an absolutely beautiful portrait of grief and how different everyone handles it. Sarah is snarky and angsty, getting into trouble in an effort to feel something, but forgetting that she is not the only person who misses Jamie. Her pain and depression were never tiresome, especially as Sarah begins her journey to reconnect with her world. As Sarah is a bit of an unreliable narrator, it was easy to dislike her parents who felt so unsympathetic or Roy, a local Christmas Tree farmer, as a crazy coot, but Sarah does eventually see these people as how they really are.

Each chapter was illustrated with different charts explaining her various opinions be it sex, drugs, boyfriends, depression, death, and truth. Some were humuorous and some took far too much deciphering than I was willing to figure it out. Other than that minor drawback, The Theory of Everything is a very solid book that captures the aftermath of death with all its downs and ups.

Minnie McClary Speaks Her Mind Book Review

Minnie McClary Speaks Her Mind by Valerie Hobbs
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
August 7, 2012

Sixth-grader, Minnie McClary, is the new girl at school, a bright student who is searching for answers. Why did her dad become a whistle blower at work? Why is her Uncle building a helicopter in the basement? Is her Uncle crazy? Why did her brother become so mean when he turned thirteen? When Minnie's language arts class gets a new unconventional teacher, Minnie is encouraged to ask her questions, but terrified of what will happen if she does. While Minnie and her classmate Amira adore Miss Marks, others are questioning Miss Marks' teaching methods and more. Minnie soon finds herself in the middle of a heated debate that will require her to not only ask questions, but to seek the answers, no matter how hard they may be.

Hobbs has managed to squeeze a little bit of everything into this middle grade novel, making it cleverly didactic and sometimes a little too charming.  There is the war hero Uncle living in the basement suffering from PTSD. Her new friend Amira who is Muslim and wears a headscarf and deals with prejudice every day. Her father who lost his job while doing what was right, resulting in the family downsizing and her parents continual fighting. A community of parents who dislike Miss Marks based on the fact that she wears jeans while teaching, has piercings, and a tattoo on her ankle...a tattoo of a rainbow.

Minnie is dealing with a lot and I imagine there are many kids out there dealing with many situations like hers. An unemployed parent, changes in the family dynamic, prejudice and bullying at school and online, bodily and psychological changes, a crisis of belief, and a crushing need to get answers, to change the world. Minnie's fears felt very real to me and I enjoyed her path of self-discovery.

On the other hand, the reader can't miss the "messages" Hobbs is throwing out like bricks. This resulted in a teacher who was far too perfect, a teacher who I think most teachers wish they were like, but I imagine many are not. It made me wonder if this wasn't one of those books where teachers would love it and kids might like it. After all, what progressive parent or teacher wouldn't want their kids to read a book with such a wholesome message? On that note, I think parents who are like some of the ones at the school board meeting portrayed at the end of the novel, will absolutely hate it and want their children to avoid this book at all costs. Hint: These are the kind of parents who ban certain books from being read and want teachers to be fired because they may or may not be gay.

Minnie does, in the end, speak her mind, but it all felt too much like the end was wrapped in a bow. Everything worked it, everyone got better, all the relationships improves, and although the message was a hopeful one, it wasn't very realistic. This one is definitely one book that I think adults will like a whole lot more than kids will.

The Kill Order Book Review

The Kill Order by James Dashner
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
August 14, 2012

In this prequel to The Maze Runner series, Dashner gives his readers a glimpse into the world after the devastating sun flares, but before WICKED and the Flare.

Trina and Mark have managed to survive together, fleeing a ravaged New York City and settling in the mountains of North Carolina. However, surviving the sun flares may have been the least of their worries, when a ship flies over their make-shift village and introduces a disease to its inhabitants, one that quickly becomes airborne and causes the victim to lose their mind in the most terrible ways imaginable. Suspicious and searching for answers, Mark, Trina, and Alec and their friends make their way to an underground bunker. It soon becomes clear that the disease, now called the Flare, is out of control and infecting everyone, even them. Yet, there may be hope, as long as Mark can stay sane long enough to go through with their plans.

Set thirteen years before The Maze Runner trilogy, The Kill Order was roller coaster zombie adventure without the zombies. Watching the characters descend into madness was enlightening, but also frustrating, in a good way. Spolier Alert: If you have read the trilogy, you know that there is no cure for the Flare, so it was terrible to hear the characters speak of possible cures and know that there isn't one. This degradation of the mind offered a suspense that left me wondering until the end if they would be able to accomplish the impossible before the Flare ravaged their minds. This book is not lacking in action that is for sure.

The Kill Order offered a few answers, but left me with a lot more questions. Why use darts to distribute an illness that by all accounts was unstable to begin with? Who in their right mind, after millions of people all over the world have died, would think that the world needed more population control? Why is everyone they meet outside of their little group, so terrible?

This last question is a rather philosophical question, one that can be raised after reading a number of these dystopian sci-fi books. Typically, only the main characters are good and the majority of people, whether they be young or old, are liars, cheaters, murderers, manipulators, out for selfish gain, or cannibals...or all of those things rolled into one. What does this say about what we think of humanity? At the very least, what does this say about how these authors view humanity? Are we saying that only a select handful of "good people" will survive a disaster? Are good people somehow weak and unable to fend for themselves under terrible circumstances? Is this an American idea? I ask this last question because I have seen the footage and read the stories of those who survived the Japanese tsunami. There were so many people who helped others, led them to safety, even put their own lives on the line for others. More importantly, it wasn't a small handful. I have seen it with other disasters too. I find it hard to believe that in just a few short days, the world would be full of people who would kill you as soon as look at you. Sure, there are some people who do not handle emergency situations well, the sheeple as it were, but history has proven that good and bad people do manage to survive terrible conditions, and a lot of them manage to do it with their morals intact.

An action-packed prequel that is both well-written and maddening, and I do mean that literally and figuratively.

On the Day I Died: Stories From the Grave Book Review

On the Day I Died: Stories From the Grave by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade
July 10, 2012

Late for curfew, Mike is racing home, only to be stopped by a girl who seems to have lost her way. What seems like a simple drop-off and mother avoidance quickly turns into a ghost tale of epic proportions. Set in White Cemetery, a graveyard just outside of Chicago, this is a set of ghost stories that span throughout Chicago's fascinating past including the World's Fair, the Great Depression, Al Capone, and the local insane asylum. Ten ghosts tell Mike their terrifying tales in hopes that by telling their stories, they can 'move on' and perhaps Mike can learn something from them.

Fleming weaves together a chilling series of ghost stories borrowing from the literary and the folk. Each short story created an interesting anthology that I think many young readers will enjoy. One story relies heavily on The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs, telling the story of a love lorn Lily who will do anything to see her beau again, alive or dead. There were homages paid to Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen King, and Alfred Hitchcock. Although some of the story elements were borrowed, Fleming really made them her own, giving depth and feeling to many a story that usually begins with, "Once there was a girl..." The histocracy gave the book a focus and I learned a number of things about Chicago that I never knew.

I would say that although the cover has a cartoony look, based on the content, this one is for the 11 and up readers.

This book will leave you with more than a few goosebumps and it is not recommended that it be read at night, and definitely not with a flashlight under the covers.