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I’ve found myself reading more ebooks than usual lately, mostly in the middle of the night when I don’t want to turn on a lamp to read any of my print books, but I’m awake feeding baby and getting him back to sleep. The Kindle app on my phone is perfect for the middle of the night, and I’ve been reading a combination of ebooks from the library and ARCs from Netgalley. Here are a few I’ve gotten from Netgalley – I think they’re all out now, or almost out.

In the Shadow of BlackbirdsIn the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Publication date: April 2, 2013

I’d recommend this to anyone who likes books about diseases, spiritualists, ghosts, World War I, or a creepy combination of the supernatural and historical fiction. The setting is particularly vivid, as well as the historical details about how people tried to protect themselves from the flu – sometimes the truth is as creepy as the fictional bits! It’s a dark story that might pull fans of the supernatural into the realm of historical fiction. Or, if you were intrigued by The Diviners but wanted it shorter, minus the humor and slang and flippant characters (for the record, I liked both books).

 

Being Henry DavidBeing Henry David by Cal Armistead

Publication date: March 1, 2013

The story of a boy who wakes up in a train station and doesn’t know who he is makes for an instant page turner. I loved never knowing quite where the story would go, or who he would turn out to be. Several side characters were nicely drawn and I liked the way Thoreau and his writing were worked into the story (except for the visions of Thoreau himself, which felt unnecessary). Unfortunately, the story takes a turn into lackluster high school drama with the battle of the bands plot line, which just felt like padding. Also, while the main character gets some resolution, several other characters are left hanging at key moments in their stories. I was particularly interested in the brother and sister characters and what would become of them. Unless Armistead is planning a companion that centers on them, leaving them mid-story was just mean.

 

Anything But Ordinary Anything But Ordinary by Lara Avery

Publication date: September 11, 2012

Bryce’s story was compelling and the whole thing was an interesting if fairly standard drama, somewhere in between a problem novel and something more original. Girl wakes up after being in a coma for several years, life has moved on without her, etc. But Avery throws in some elements that take the story out of realistic and into ‘her brain has been changed in mystical ways’ territory, and those pieces of the story didn’t work as well for me. I think I would’ve preferred to see Bryce deal with things in a strictly realistic way. I also have mixed feelings about the ending, and ultimately felt a little let down by the whole thing. Still, a story that I’d recommend to teen readers who are hooked by the whole premise and don’t need a 100% happy ending.
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I don’t tend to formally review picture books, but I’ve started adding more to my Goodreads tally, partly to keep track and partly because I’m having trouble reaching my reading goal for the year (well shy of my goal 200). Here are a few that I loved, sometimes just because they were my kind of quirky.

This is Not My HatThis is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen animals, what expressive eyes you have! I love the overall design of this book, the straightforward but so-funny text, the ending, and the tip of the hat (oh, I crack myself up) to I Want My Hat Back.

 

You Are StardustYou Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

Part picture book, part science, part poetry. I can’t decide if the words or pictures are more wonderful – they coexist perfectly. It somehow manages to incorporate the big picture and the enticing details without feeling distracted. I’d recommend this to curious young minds and anyone who enjoys mesmerizing illustrations.

 

Step Gently OutStep Gently Out by Helen Frost

Gorgeous photographs and a lovely poem that complement each other nicely.

 

 

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (Olivia)Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Some picture book series become less inspired as they go on (I’m looking at you, Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes). Others, like Olivia, somehow manage to maintain their brilliance. Or is it just that I sympathize with Olivia a little too much? “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore! Why do they all want to be the same?” Exactly, Olivia. Exactly.

Bonus points for the inclusion of: The Little Match Girl, Martha Graham, non-sparkly princesses, matador pants, corporate malfeasance, and a warthog.

 

Big Little BrotherBig Little Brother by Kevin Kling

There are sweet, lovely, calming picture books…and then there are odd, quirky, bizarre ones. This one is definitely quirky, but also strangely sweet at the end. The pictures convey a lot of the humor here (speaking of quirky, it’s the same illustrator, Chris Monroe, as the Monkey with a Tool Belt books), but the text also cracked me up.

The narrator is a small but articulate kid who’s been outsized by his toddler brother. People are constantly assuming that the toddler is the older brother, but the younger guy also commits the usual crimes of touching his toys, following him, and dropping donut crumbs from his oversized fists.

The central action goes down at the Old Woman in the Shoe, “a place for kids to stay while moms shop.” Our narrator loves the play kitchen, where he can whip up a Thanksgiving dinner if he gets “straight to work.” When another kids tries to bully him out of his tasty plastic turkey, this affords our narrator opportunity to say things like “we are going to have Thanksgiving and we are going to enjoy it” while gritting his teeth. Fortunately, help is on the way and we’re off to our oddly endearing ending.

Recommended for preschoolers and up, especially if dry, quirky humor is your cup of tea.

 

Another BrotherAnother Brother by Matthew Cordell

If the thought of sheep in tight sweaters, suspenders, and 80s-style headbands cracks you up, or if you were ever an older sibling, this is a book for you.

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The Raven Boys (Raven Cycle, #1)The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

This is the problem with series. You get hooked on the characters and then you have to wait.

This one was all about the characters and atmosphere for me – it all felt very real and tangible, despite all the fantasy elements. There’s some suspense, and the romance elements felt relatively subdued, and there’s a bit of Welsh mythology thrown in, with a pleasantly Susan Cooper-ish feel to it. Also, I love Stiefvater’s sense of humor – the descriptions of the raven, for example, regularly cracked me up. But she slips the humor in without calling too much attention to it. I gobbled it up.

The only downside – the only thing that made it frustrating – is that lack of resolution that seems to come with series openers these days.

There’s some violence and swearing, and I don’t know where the rest of the series will go, but I’d hand this to sophisticated middle school readers and up (hey, if they start now they’ll grow into it).

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Son (The Giver, #4)Son by Lois Lowry

Perhaps it’s because this hit a more personal note than the previous companions/sequels, but I felt like this was an improvement over Gathering Blue and Messenger. I loved having a different view of the community that Jonas (and Claire) came from, especially all the little nods to things that major rereaders of The Giver would remember. When Claire felt apprehensive, I had an immediate flashback to the opening lines of The Giver, for example.

The structure is interesting – first we follow Claire as she becomes Gabe’s mother, then her life after she leaves the community, and then we switch to Gabe’s point of view as their stories come together. The three parts of the story feel distinct, and without having read the earlier companion books, the whole thing might feel disjointed and random. Actually, it does feel a little disjointed (especially the middle section, which I enjoyed anyway). I’m still not sure about the mechanics of the conclusion, although it did have a great emotional resonance. Overall, though, it was a satisfying conclusion that answered a lot of questions the earlier books left open. I’d definitely recommend it, especially to serious fans of The Giver and people who’ve read the companion books already (although you probably don’t need them fresh in your mind to enjoy this one).

Source: my public library

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The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray

This may be my favorite Libba Bray book yet! I’ve had mixed reactions to her earlier titles. I enjoyed A Great and Terrible Beauty, but had some issues with the fantasy aspect of the story (and that continued through the rest of the series, culminating in my 1 star review of The Sweet Far Thing). Then I thought that Going Bovine had some great things going for it, but didn’t quite work. Same thing for Beauty Queens, which was hilarious and biting but otherwise flawed. Here we go, though – here’s a happy medium between her tendency to go over the top and throw it ALL in, and her fantastic sense of characters and dialogue and setting.

Okay, maybe she goes a little over the top – there are an awful lot of characters, and there’s an awful lot of setting things up for the rest of the series. The set up is all marvelous, but the loose ends may bug some readers more than others (I was particularly interested in what would become of Theta and Memphis, who factor into the resolution but don’t play as large a part as I expected based on all the set up). Bray also goes a little over the top with Evie’s slang, but the saving grace here is that she’s the only character who speaks in slang, and the story is spread out over so many characters.

The book has got humor, suspense, a fantastically realized setting, and a decent pace despite the length. There’s a little romance, a bit of action, some genuinely creepy scenes – basically a little bit of everything.

I was curious to see how creepy and suspenseful the story felt on audio – perhaps a bit less than it would have on the page, reading in a dim room at bedtime. The narration is well done – the women’s voices slightly better than the men’s, but it’s fun to hear all the slang and accents and so on. This is one I’ll easily recommend to high schoolers.

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I was about my post my review of Spark, the second book in this series, when I realized I’d never posted my (brief) review of Glow. So here are both of them:
Glow (Sky Chasers, #1)Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan

I’m completely conflicted about this one. On one hand, I was enjoying the pace and the tension and all of the mysterious unknowns, both plot-wise and in terms of Ryan’s world-building – what will her version of life in space look like? On the other hand, I never clicked with either of the main characters whose POV we follow. As the story went on, I found the ambiguity surrounding their actions more and more frustrating. Wait, do I trust him now or not? Wait, is she being reasonable or suffering the effects of trauma? How much can I trust each narrator? I wavered back and forth between thinking that Ryan was doing brilliant things with characterization and being completely annoyed. That pretty much sums up my whole experience!

 

Spark (Sky Chasers, #2)Spark by Amy Kathleen Ryan

This wins major points for addressing all the issues I had with Glow. This is really one of those series where it would be best to sit down and read them all in a row (if they were all out yet). Glow left me frustrated with a few things – I didn’t click with either of the main characters, and there was a boatload of ambiguity about how people were acting and why. Was I supposed to be siding with Waverly or Kieran? And what about Seth?

While I still didn’t completely click with any of the main characters in Spark, I certainly found myself less frustrated. More of the characters’ personalities were falling into place, and we got more of Seth’s perspective to help explain his behavior. Of course, the plot also continues to thicken, which again gave the book a brisk pace and plenty of action. I also became more accepting of the ambiguity – maybe I was just in the right mood for it this time – and I really appreciated the way Ryan doesn’t let the characters be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – they’re all somewhere inbetween, and increasingly aware of their own flaws. Nicely done, very nicely done.

I’d recommend this series to teens (and some middle-schoolers) who are interested in space travel, or who like morally complex stories that also have plenty of action.

Liar & SpyLiar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was so easy to slip into this story. Rebecca Stead does an excellent job with world-building, which is a concept I usually think of more with fantasy novels, but I think it applies to any story where a sense of place is crucial to the story. Here, it’s an apartment building. The whole story takes place within walking distance of Georges’ new building. It’s very much about discovering a new place, a place that maybe you’d rather not be, but which turns out to have its own rewards.

The story is also layered beautifully – lots of little things that add up to something bigger. There’s a hint of mystery, developing friendships, contrasts between now and then, school bullies, family dynamics. It all ends up feeling necessary.

I might even bump up my rating after I sit on this one for a while. It didn’t blow me away, but it has all the hallmarks of excellence.

Source: ARC from NetGalley
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Splendors and GloomsSplendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fact that this took me a while to read should in no way reflect on its quality (I have a love/hate relationship with reading books on my phone, which is currently my only way to read ebooks). In fact, each time I opened it up again, I immediately knew where I was and what was happening in the story, with the whole thing as vivid as if I’d read it over just a few days.

‘Splendors and Glooms’ is really the perfect description of the story – the gloom is easy to spot, in the downtrodden lives of Victorian orphans; in the sadness of Clara, her parents’ only living child; in the brutality of puppeteer Grisini; in the agony of a witch torn between hanging on and finally letting go.

The splendors are there, too – Parsefall’s love of the puppet theater, and Clara’s, too; and the sense of redemption that the story brings (although telling would be spoiling). There’s magic and surprising humor and a delicious Gothic feel.

Also splendid is Laura Amy Schlitz’s writing – this woman has a way with her pen, and each story she turns out is masterful yet distinct. I think I’m bumping this to the top of list of Newbery favorites for the year.

Source: ARC from NetGalley
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Ah, finally the temperatures have slipped back down to the low 80s (the heat doesn’t usually last long in Oregon, but it’s always a shock to the system) and I feel human again. Part of the problem is that our whole, tiny apartment heats up if you turn on the stove for five minutes, so there’s been a lack of baking and real, balanced meals around here. Hopefully I’ll get in some serious baking time this fall!

As for books, I’ve been reading steadily but my numbers feel like they’ve slipped. I’ve been doing more ‘reading up on things’ and reading less fiction – boo! I’ll post some complete reviews soon, but here are a few recent reads that hit the spot:

The Changeover:  A Supernatural RomanceThe Changeover: A Supernatural Romance by Margaret Mahy

The writing style felt very old-school – not dated, necessarily, but there was something about the book that gave me flashbacks to my fantasy-devouring adolescence. This was my first Mahy, and now I’d like to try more.

 

 

 

For Darkness Shows the StarsFor Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

It’s been a while since I reread Persuasion, so I enjoyed the similarities without being distracted by any ways that this homage might not have lived up to the original. I particularly liked the ways that the futuristic setting allowed Peterfreund to explore social issues that often lurk in the background of Austen’s novels. Note: not set in space, and I’m not sure exactly why I thought it was (for a few chapters, actually).

 

 

Tender Morsels (Audio CD)Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Strangely enough, I didn’t love this on audio as much as I loved the print version. The narrators did a good job, but I think I appreciated the material more as ‘silent reading’ – I felt the mood of the story more strongly on my own. Plus, in the early, difficult sections, the audio version doesn’t let you skim over the horrors the way the print version does. I’d forgotten how the story wraps up (my poor memory makes for great rereading) and it was interesting to see which of my guesses were right.

While this was marketed as young adult in the US, I believe it was originally marketed to adults in Australia – and I think it could go either way. There are some aspects of the story that feel YA, and others that feel impossibly adult. I’d recommended it to older teens and adults.

 

Keeping the CastleKeeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Speaking of Jane Austen, this was a fun read-alike. It felt like something perfectly in between Austen and We Capture the Castle, and it won me over from the opening scene. Sure, there were some predictable elements, but it was sheer fun to read.

See You at Harry'sSee You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Going into this book, I knew it would be sad. It has the subject heading “grief – fiction” for crying out loud, plus I’d read several reviews before ordering it for the library and that gave me a heads up. But sometimes I’m just in the mood for a tear-jerker, so I picked it up and waited to see what would be so devastating.

The first half of the book is the story of a family dealing with the usual upsets of life, with the added hurdle of running a family restaurant. Narrator Fern feels like the invisible one, her older brother hasn’t come out but they all know he’s gay, oldest girl Sara is taking a year off before college, and three-year-old Charlie is, as always, dirty and sticky and looking for affection.

When things go wrong for the family, Knowles writing felt like it tightened up. Each person blames themselves for what happened, and they have to figure out how to go on. The sadness never felt maudlin – it was always sharp and painful and vivid. Although the sadness in the story is specific to this particular incident, I always think that good tear-jerkers evoke a universal sort of grief. This may not be your tragedy, but if the emotions ring true, you are put in the character’s shoes. Their grief and any grief you hold get mixed together.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but I think it fits well into that canon of children’s books that do this sort of thing well. It made me think of both Bridge to Terabithia and A Summer to Die – books with very different plots but a similar ability to call up emotion.

Source: my public library

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