Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kenny & the Dragon

Cute, short novel for grades 3-7! Kenny & the Dragon is even appropriate for younger ages to listen to, and it's illustrated by the author, Tony DiTerlizzi, co-creator of The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Kenny is a rabbit who lives in a little village called Roundbrook. His best friend is the local bookshop owner, a badger who was once a knight but who now lives in retirement. One day, Kenny meets a dragon on his family's property. The dragon isn't at all like the books say they are. This one loves to read and play the piano and eat glazed carrots, and soon, he's Kenny's best friend, too. But when the townsfolk hear about the new dragon in town, they call their knight out of retirement to take care of the menace. It's up to Kenny to save his two best friends from each other.

I think I read this book in under two hours. It's an absolutely fun romp, a perfect bedtime story adventure to be read over several nights, one I look forward to reading to my own son one day. It even has a few hidden lessons about facing your fears and standing up for what you believe in. Definitely worth getting for younger kids. Middle schoolers are probably too cool for this, but if they're listening on the sidelines, I bet they'll get pulled in.

I'm not against having real danger in books. In fact, I think it's good for kids to be exposed to that in stories (not violence, just danger). Kenny & the Dragon has no real danger. It's more about humor and misunderstanding. I don't know if it would be a better story if there was real danger. It might be more deeply engaging, but regardless, it is satisfyingly good. Four solid stars.


Mike Lupica is a pretty well-known author now, but Hero is the first book of his I've read. I was not terribly impressed. It's written for a middle school audience and targeted more toward guys, so maybe I'm missing something others would get. The style was sparse, and by that, I mean, thoughts and ideas were communicated with few words. But largely, the book is about thoughts and ideas. Not much seems to happen until halfway through, and even then, I was underwhelmed.

Hero is about a boy whose father dies and leaves him a legacy he doesn't even know about, a set of awesome superpowers. Billy begins investigating the "accident" of his father's plane crash, believing, and rightly so, that such a thing could never happen to his father accidentally. His search leads him to a mysterious old man who tells him he has "magic," just like his father. And that's where, halfway through the book, the story starts to get going. Billy faces several tests that are all leading toward a fight with the Bads. The problem is, he's not sure who the Bads really are. He gets conflicting advice from people who know his powers, so he begins to distrust everyone, even some of the people closest to him.

This is definitely an origins story for a superhero because he has to discover who he is, train, and then eventually fight. But I keep comparing it to Batman Begins (the movie starring Christian Bale), also an origins story, and there's just no contest. (I love Batman Begins, by the way.) In Hero, not enough happens. There's too much internal struggle without enough emotional payoff. The reader doesn't know who's right throughout most of the book, and that's frustrating rather than suspenseful. Morality gets confused, and I don't mean sex. The book is clean as far as the normal sex, drugs, and language go. It's more that Right and Wrong get confused so that you don't even know if Billy is a Bad, deep down. Maybe that's more true-to-life, but you don't want that in a superhero. You want him to be a hero, automatically good, and, extra good.

But these are minor morality issues in a book that's main problem for me was a lack of spark. I could just be the wrong audience, and if you like Mike Lupica, there's nothing objectionable in this story for a middle school boy. But if you want my opinion, and I know I've mentioned this before in regards to superhero stories, go with H.I.V.E. instead. It's about the kids of supervillains, but surprisingly, Right and Wrong are more clear-cut, besides which, the plot is much more entertaining.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour

I picked up this book because it featured a road trip, and my husband and I have been taking road trips about every other year since we got married. Amy & Roger's Epic Detour, by Morgan Matson, is a young adult novel already in hardcover but coming out in paperback in a few days, so I picked a good time to read it. It was another one of those that had been sitting on my shelf for awhile, and though I thought it would be interesting, it wasn't about shape-shifters or magic or the Apocalypse so I thought I wasn't in the mood for it. But my shelf is emptying, and my options were limited. I had to read something.

It ended up being pretty fun. Having traveled from Indiana to California and back over three weeks, it was intriguing to see another viewpoint of the trip. In the book, Amy and Roger go from California to Connecticut. They are supposed to get there in four days, following a very strict schedule Amy's mom sets for them. Amy's dad has died recently, her twin brother is in rehab, and her mom has moved them across the country. Amy finishes her junior year of high school in California on her own and then has to get the family car to Connecticut where her mom is already working. The problem is Amy doesn't drive anymore, not since the accident that killed her father. So, a college freshman friend of the family is recruited to drive for her.

But Roger and Amy decide the itinerary is too confining, and they set out on their own path, beginning a journey of healing, breaking free, and finding love.

The book incorporates black and white photos of some of the sights along the road, as well as receipts and other paper stubs that document the journey. For each state they travel through, Amy keeps a one-page journal, jotting down interesting facts like the state motto. There are also lists of each of the character's music playlists for the road with songs that mirror whatever state or mood they are going through. In some ways, it's like looking at a scrapbook of a trip you really want to take yourself. Traveling across the country is freeing and fun, but Matson, who has taken the trip three times herself, writes about two people who are suffering and need each other to get through the pain holding each of them back. That gives the story depth, and the back story of the characters is what drives them, literally, to each destination on the map. It's a clever interweaving of literal and figurative journeys.

There is one story premise, though, that I have to focus my two-bit word of caution on. I don't think it's the greatest idea in the world to put a guy and girl into a car alone together for a week. It's just asking for trouble, and sure enough, they end up in situations you should never find yourself in if you're trying to flee temptation and remain pure. In a few hotels, they not only share a room, but they share the bed, and finally, (SPOILER HERE) when they do fall in love, they spend their last night in the same room on purpose so they can have sex. The book doesn't give any details, keeping it PG, but it still sets a bad example.

I know it's only catering to the culture. I guess it's normal now for teens to have sex. I mean, it's what you do if you love someone, right? That's according to the culture, and I will never buy into it.

Here's how well I'm getting to know "young adult" fiction. I actually kind of expected it to happen eventually. It does so often in young adult fiction these days. But this book was particularly set up for it. I mean, seriously, any psychologist or even just a logical mind could tell you it was going to happen. Amy and Roger set off alone in a car together and then, right away, decided not to do what the mom wanted. Not a very smart mom, either, to put them in that situation. But real people, not just fictional characters, do things like this every day in the real world. They put themselves into situations that are begging for trouble. This one was one of the more obvious to me, and it irks me to see this kind of an example being put in front of young adults all the time under the guise of learning about yourself. There were a lot of good things Amy and Roger learned, but that shouldn't have been one of them.

I did appreciate one thing the book said about sex, although I was disappointed in the character for doing it. In a flashback, we learn that Amy went to her boyfriend after her father's funeral and had sex so that she wouldn't think about anything else. In the end, though, she realized what a mistake it was. She lost her virginity and ended up feeling completely vulnerable, the exact opposite of what she wanted to feel. There's a good lesson there.

Well, that's my rant. Other than the morality problem, I enjoyed the book and the journey it took me on. Makes me want to get on the road again myself soon.

Four stars for story, plot, and setting. Two stars for moral message.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Tourist

I loved this movie! I really like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, but they do a wide range of movies. You never know quite what you are going to get, except for good acting. But in this case, it was good acting with almost nothing objectionable, and I simply loved it.

In The Tourist, Angelina Jolie is Elise Ward, the lover of criminal mastermind Alexander Pierce. He sends her a letter, telling her to pick a guy at random from a certain train and make everyone watching believe it is him. Meanwhile, British Interpol agents and another crime lord are looking everywhere for Pierce and following Elise, in the hope of tracking him down. Elise chooses a tourist (Johnny Depp), an American math teacher who is awkward and shy but obviously charmed by Elise. But when Frank, the tourist, begins to fall in love with her and is drawn deeper into danger, she must maneuver to find her lost love Alexander while saving the life of the man she is beginning to care for.

This movie had me laughing out loud. Angelina Jolie is beautiful and captivating as always, but Johnny Depp is really good. He plays a character completely foreign to his various roles. I was amazed that he could act so...well, normal. And it was hilarious, to boot. Frank is always trying to speak in Spanish to the locals of Venice, where most of the movie takes place. He's always getting himself into scrapes that are way over his head, and he's falling in love with a woman who is far out of his reach. But it's not embarrassing. It's adorable.

Despite expecting a good movie, I was thoroughly surprised and delighted by this one. If you are picky morally, and I usually am, this movie is rated PG-13. Jolie does remove some of her clothes, only for the purpose of getting changed. There's no sex, and Jolie is still modestly attired, even in her underwear. I believe I told my husband it looked like granny lingerie. I don't mean to be offensive to grannies out there, but you know what I mean. There's also smoking, and some people end up dead in the end. For once, I'm entirely okay with the PG-13 rating. Usually, I think movies should be rated higher than they are, like R for sex.

Having given the moral spiel, I can now return to gushing about what a beautiful, romantic, funny, suspenseful semi-action flick this is. I give it five stars, and trust me, I usually don't go above four. Definitely one to see, maybe even own.

Friday, April 15, 2011


My husband playfully chides me for keeping 20 unread books on my shelf, especially when I frequently complain about how I can't find anything to read. How do these books even end up there? Since I get them for free, I'm not always picky. If the premise if remotely interesting, I take the book home. Lately, I've been curbing this tendency in the interest of clearing my shelf a little bit. I recently read two books (see my latest reviews) that I would never have missed if I'd left them alone, but on a rare occasion, a book surprises me, especially if it's low on my reading list. Stork was one of those.

I've been hanging onto Stork, a young adult novel by Wendy Delsol, for awhile. It came out in October 2010, and I got my advance reader's copy quite a bit earlier than that. In all the array of paranormal beings, a girl-Stork who could put souls into just-conceived babies didn't intrigue me like people who could turn into more furry creatures. I've always been more into wolves and least into birds. I like to call myself an animal person, but I think birds are the most boring of all pets. My apologies to all the bird-lovers out there. I know I'm making enemies.

Even the heroine of Stork had a strike against her for being into fashion. I'm not against fashion, but I'm the least fashionable kind of person, comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, wearing the same shoes every day of my life.

Nonetheless, Stork grabbed me, and in two days, I'd read it from cover to cover. It wasn't so much the plot, which became surprisingly more interesting the more I got invested. Thankfully, Katla never actually turns into a stork, and there's no swaddled babies being delivered in handkerchiefs to people's doorways. But there is magic involved. Katla unexpectedly finds herself the youngest member of a secret group of old women, grannies all, who believe in the old myths and put souls into unborn babies. The souls are revealed to the members of this stork society in dreams, and the only weird physical transformation is an odd, fiery rash on their scalps, which is a physical signal for them to gather together.

But being a Stork is only one of many transformations Katla is undergoing. She's just moved from California to a small town in Minnesota after her parents' divorce, and everyone stares at her strangely in her new school. It doesn't help that the one guy she got to know before school ill-used her and pretends not to know her once school starts. And then there's the guy who keeps popping up wherever Katla goes, but he and Katla can't seem to get along.

Even with all this going on, the plot isn't what makes the book exceptional. It's Katla's voice throughout the story. Her thoughts and her dialog are always witty, packing in word plays and clever imagery in subtle ways you would almost miss if you didn't slow down to absorb them. It's not only Katla who's likeable either. The characters around her are quirky and loveable with their own brands of humorous witticisms. Stork was simply an enjoyable read.

It's hard to categorize this book. It has fantastical elements in it, but it's not fantasy. It has paranormal elements in it, and it certainly has romance, but it's not paranormal romance in the way you normally see. It's magical, but the magic is not domineering. The magical elements are almost a side plot for most of the book, and that's fine. But however you might categorize Stork, the facts remain, it was surprisingly captivating and downright satisfying.

Four bright, beautiful stars.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Elliot Allagash

This book has a fascinating premise. Seymour is low on the totem pole in his school, and he kind of likes it that way, except for the part where he gets picked on occasionally and has to go to detention with his tormentors. But even that isn't too bad because detention isn't crowded and he can mostly keep to himself. That's what Seymour likes, being left alone.

Then Elliot Allagash pushes him down the stairs, beginning an odd relationship that turns into a twisted friendship. Elliot Allagash is rich, despicable, and bored, and Seymour becomes a project: take the lowest on the totem pole and raise him to the top. But Elliot's ways are as despicable as he is, and though sometimes he can seem like a friend, you'd better always do what he says. Seymour rises to the top his freshman year and continues his friendship with Elliot throughout high school, but there's a price to pay. When will it be too high?

Simon Rich also wrote the humor collection Ant Farm as well as some other pieces, and he writes for Saturday Night Live. His humor is definitely quirky. Most interesting, though, is his youth. He was born in 1984 (younger than I am!), and if you see his picture on the inside cover of the book, you'll think he's younger than that!

Elliot Allagash is certainly entertaining, but it's not really a happy book, for all its humor. It's morally disturbing (not sexually, but ethically) and has a lot of cursing, particularly using God's name in vain. In the end, I was not satisfied, although the outcome wasn't horrible. I don't think it was much worth my time.

The Candidates (Delcroix Academy, Book 1)

This was a relatively intriguing idea, but it was mediocre in its delivery. The Candidates (Delcroix Academy, Book 1) begins a new young adult series by Inara Scott. Dancia is average in everything except one, and it's that one thing that makes her determined to stay below the radar in everything else. She has a secret power, but the problem is, it's uncontrollable. Whenever she gets upset, people end up getting hurt and going to the hospital. Dancia has determined that the best way to keep people safe is to guard herself against getting attached to anyone. She reasons, if she doesn't care, she can't get upset.

Everything changes when recruiters come from the prestigious, out-of-her-league boarding school called Decroix Academy. They think Dancia is special, but they couldn't know about her power, could they? Dancia is sure they have made a mistake, but she accepts their full scholarship offer anyway. The thing is, it's impossible to be average at Delcroix. Everyone has talent, whether it's in math, music, science, or language. Dancia begins to wonder why some people, including herself and her new friend Jack, don't seem to have any talent, at least none that others can know about. Then there's something mysterious about the school itself. It's overly protected, and some of the older students seem to have their eyes glued to Dancia's every movement, including a very hot junior who was one of her recruiters.

This story has so much potential, but it didn't play much with it. Dancia is a girl with superpowers, but she barely uses them throughout the book. When the hidden purposes of Delcroix are revealed, they are somewhat disappointing. Nothing really happens at the end of the book. The climax is underdone.

If you want a story about superpowers at a boarding school, H.I.V.E. is a better option. It's a story about a secret boarding school for the children of supervillains. It has much more danger, and the characters are more interesting.

Friday, April 8, 2011


I don't know why, but I tend to give established authors a wide berth. Maybe it's due simply to the circumstances in which I get most of my books (usually advance reader's copies trying to promote new authors). Sometimes a book will come through from a well-known author, and I will think to myself, I wish I read that author, but I rarely take the book to try. It would never even have occurred to me to see if I liked Orson Scott Card, and to be honest, I don't know why I picked up Pathfinder. The description was mildly interesting but nothing I would have thought I had to have.

After reading a very good book, The Iron Queen, reviewed here, I was looking for something that would engage me as much. I'm not saying I was mysteriously drawn to Pathfinder or led to read it, just that it's ironic I should choose science fiction when I am more of a fantasy reader and was looking for something as good as a story about fairies. But choose it I did. And though I cannot say I was magically drawn to the book, I can definitely say the book drew me in from the start.

Pathfinder is young adult science fiction. It tells the story of a boy from the backwoods who is unlike most of his peers. He's a trapper like his father, but unlike anyone else, he can see the paths of every living creature living before him in streaks of color before his vision. Because of it, he and his father are very good trappers, but Rigg's father is also determined to give Rigg the best schooling possible. So, while they walk the forests, he teaches Rigg about science, language, history, astronomy, physics, everything a backwoods boy should never need to know.

Then Rigg's father dies, leaving him heir to an enormous amount of wealth in the form of 19 jewels as well as a quest to find a sister he never knew he had. Accompanied by his friend Umbo, the only other boy with a special power in their little village, they head for the cities where they will need more than their abilities to help them survive.

Within the first 30 pages of this large 600-pager, the characters were so well-established I was hooked. They were real, developed, surprising, funny. They talked about bodily functions (this is a book written by a man with male protagonists). Rigg was smart and a smart aleck in an endearing way. I wanted to know more about him and his mysterious father.

Then each chapter began to start with a seemingly completely different story about a kid piloting a spaceship from a devastated Earth, hoping to jump through space to a new planet. I was intrigued about how the two stories might match up.

In Pathfinder, the mysteries keep building, but the clues are fun to follow. You should have a pretty good idea of what's going on before you get to the end. It's satisfying to figure out.

Orson Scott Card plays with time travel a great deal in this book, and not in the same way as much other science fiction. He changes the rules. But it works in its own way, even if it sometimes makes your head (and the heads of his characters) hurt. His explanations of how the science of the world works are sometimes lengthy and would have put me off if he hadn't made sure I was invested in his characters before he started giving them. Character is what makes this book work.

So, for all my male readers out there, because honestly, this book was written for you guys, see what you think of Pathfinder. It's only young adult because the protagonists are young, but it's smart and funny enough for all ages. And if you enjoy it, more of Rigg's story is on the way and shouldn't be long. Orson Scott Card wrote this one in six months!

Four stars for a book I never would have guessed I'd like.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Iron Queen

I'm typically loathe to know the end of a story before the story chooses to reveal it to me. In other words, I never look at the last page first. I never peek. If I have three books in a series, I try not to even look at the covers of the second two.

One time I disregarded this "rule" of mine and read the second book in the series. That ended up being Magic Study, by Maria V. Snyder, a book I loved. I then picked up the first and third books in that trilogy and loved them all. This is rare, both that I did such a thing and that I loved the book enough to go back and read the one before. Often these days, I read the first book in a series, and that's enough for me.

So, I wasn't sure about reading The Iron Queen, a young adult novel by Julie Kagawa. It had two strikes against it. One was that it was the third book in a series, and I hadn't read the first two. I came into possession of it through my favorite bookstore (Summer's Stories, of course). It was an advance reader's copy, as many of the books I read are. The second strike, weirdly enough for me, was that it was about fairies. I know, I know, normally I love all those strange creatures (as long as they aren't angels), but I haven't been impressed with what I've read about fairies. Maybe it's because they are often portrayed as evil pranksters without conscience or morality.

The Iron Queen was a mixture of old and new, and it worked for me. The faery rulers have such names as Queen Mab and Titania and Oberon. Sound familiar? These are names Shakespeare used, and perhaps he got them from older stories. And yes, they are somewhat capricious and evil. But they and the other faeries portrayed in The Iron Queen have more depth to them than the old stories suggest.

Perhaps what helped most is that the story is about a half-faery/half-human girl whose biological father is King Oberon. After her adventures in the first two books, including discovering her faery birthright, Megan is ready to return home. Exiled along with her love, the son of Queen Mab, her faery days seem to be over. But Faery isn't done with her. There are faeries who want her dead, and there are questions to be answered before Megan can go back to a normal life, if she ever can.

Thus begins a journey into a beautiful and twisted world of a dying faery land and the lava deserts and wired junk lands of the Iron Fey. It's imaginative and suspenseful, and the world Kagawa creates is one of the reasons I love this book. It reminded me, in some ways, of The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor, a re-imagination of Alice in Wonderland. It has that creepy, fascinatingly beautiful vibe to it. Also, The Iron Queen is far more than a romance, that being just one aspect of the novel. It's a tale about wars and kingdoms and discovering purpose and being the only one able to do something. It has a surprising amount of depth.

Having read this one, will I go back to the first two. I wouldn't need to. The Iron Queen reviewed enough of the story from the first two books to catch me up, but it left plenty to be discovered, too. I will have to think about it. Regardless, I am happy that I read this book, sequel that it was, and after I was done, I found myself perusing my shelf to see what else might trap my attention as well. Fortunately, I found a book that's fascinating in a completely different way, but that's another review for another day.

Four stars for beautiful setting and great characters in The Iron Queen.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Kissing Game: Short Stories

I don't normally pick up short story collections. As a writer, I think it's fun to write and collect my own short stories, but personally, I'd rather read a longer story I can get invested in. But my husband has collected some of his short stories into a self-published book, and he's in the process of gathering a few short stories from friends to make an e-book. And I did once read a short story collection on vampires. So, for whatever reason, I picked up The Kissing Game, by Aidan Chambers. He's an older British fellow who's won several awards, and the back cover copy promised some surprises in the stories.

The stories are undoubtedly well-written, but I didn't like most of the endings. More particularly, I didn't think many of the stories had endings. Chambers himself admits these stories are flash fictions, a somewhat newly popular branch of story that my husband loves and has become adept at writing. With flash fiction, there's no time to develop character. You just need a central idea and a plot that is bigger than itself. In other words, you need to write it in such a way that the reader can infer much of the plot. Many flash fictions have surprise endings, but it isn't necessary. Some of Chambers's stories have surprise endings, and those were probably the most satisfactory to me, even if I didn't particularly like the stories themselves.

The title story was one of the best although the ending is sad; what saves it is the surprising shock value at the end. There was another story I found interesting about a boy with agoraphobia who tries to rescue a Russian girl in the slave trade. I'm just not sure it was a young adult story in a collection of stories for young adults. In fact, readers should be aware that although there is no gratuitous sex or graphicness, many of the stories contain references to casual sexuality, which I did not appreciate. In one, the surprise ending is that the narrator is a girl, and a lesbian at that. She talks about her former girlfriend's new boyfriend the whole story. I simply don't appreciate the emphasis on sexuality in the stories.

Other stories didn't work at all for me. Some were written purely in dialog, talking about nothing of substance that I could tell. They seemed like exercises in writing rather than final pieces. Chambers says that in flash fiction, sometimes the reader has to work as hard as the writer to discover the meaning behind a piece. I think that's kind of interesting, but there has to be some meaning to work with in the first place.

So, I give The Kissing Game: Short Stories only two stars. Unless you are doing research for your own book of short stories, skip this one.