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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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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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September always feels like the start of awards season – the time when people who are into children’s and YA books get serious about what they think should win awards. I haven’t read nearly as much as I’d hoped to (isn’t that always the case?) and in no way am I trying to make predictions about what will win. These are just my favorites, out of the books I’ve managed to consume so far. If you have a favorite that I don’t mention, please suggest it in the comments!

Newbery:

  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. She’s already won once, but not for a novel. This one felt like a heavy hitter – tons of atmosphere, great characters, rich historical setting, and some fantastical elements. Top of my list, so far.
  • Liar and Spyby Rebecca Stead. Again, she’s already won once. Some books by previous winners don’t live up to the expectations, but I thought this had a lot of the strengths of When You Reach Me without feeling derivative.

Those are the two that feel completely deserving of a medal. A few others that have felt solid, but not quite as distinguished, are The Humming Room by Ellen Potter, See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowlesand Wonder by R.J. Palacio. These feel worth a look and some discussion.

Printz:

  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. That magical combination of superior writing and a story that I love, love, loved. I can’t imagine anything else this year beating this as my favorite for the award.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Yeah, it’s a tearjerker. But John Green has a way with characters and sharp dialogue.
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Fantasy! Dragons, like you’ve never seen them before! Oh, and great characters and world-building. Please give it an honor.
  • The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats. More historical fiction – characters you love to hate and a time period I was fascinated to learn about.

Any suggestions for me? You can check out the complete list of everything I’ve read this year to see what I’ve read that didn’t make the cut (so dramatic!)

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.

SeraphinaSeraphina by Rachel Hartman

A rich, absorbing fantasy world. The whole experience reminded me of Robin McKinley‘s work – a bit of a slow build, with plenty of character development and a fantastic setting, self-deprecating humor, and some action that is essential to the story but not really the point. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, plot-driven novel, look elsewhere. If you want complex but lovable characters and a world that feels familiar yet alien, dig in.

Dragons alone won’t sell me on a book, but I love what Hartman has done with them here. She uses them both for the thrill of their fantastical qualities, as well as to explore an extreme concept of “other.” These aren’t just another culture, another race, or another belief system (although they’re all of that, too) – dragons are another species entirely.

In Hartman’s world, they’re capable of taking human form, which in turn seems to let them experience human emotion. This, of course, is forbidden – dragons are meant to be rational, scientific creatures and emotions like love are thought of as particularly dangerous. The story deals with the aftermath of a relationship between a human and a dragon, and with the way Seraphina must naviate the world as someone who should not exist.

With so many YA books recently featuring instant attraction romances, I enjoyed the slower burn here, as well as the way she (doesn’t) wrap things up. I loved many of the side characters – Orma, the princess, all of the creatures in Seraphina’s mind. They all felt real and tangible, the kind of characters who could hold up their own novel if positions were switched.

Things are wrapped up at the end, but the door is left open for sequels – best of both worlds!

Source: ARC from NetGalley.
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Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1)Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers

So yes, I’ll admit that this was pretty much a total fun book – it’s got a dash of the supernatural, poison, assassins, court intrigue, and romance. It’s a thick book, but nicely paced so that it doesn’t feel long. Ismae is an intriguing character with a satisfying arc and a believable balance between feeling powerless and impowered.

While it’s billed as the first in a series, I get the impression that each book will focus on a different character. There’s a blurb at the end saying that book two will feature Sybella, a mysterious side character from book one, and I’m guessing that book three will follow Annith, another side character with potential for a good story. If this is the case, it’s a refreshing break from the typical series mold. While another book about Ismae would certainly be entertaining, her story feels complete enough in this first book that I don’t see the need for a traditional sequel.

While the book features an atmospheric historical setting that’s crucial to the plot, it’s the light kind of history that doesn’t dwell too much on exact details and facts from history. Instead, it seems to incorporate the mood and setting without hitting the reader over the head with information.

However, as a historical fiction fan I was disappointed in the lack of historical note – I wanted to know, without having to look it up myself, which of the character actually lived and what liberties were taken with the facts. I wanted to know more about Mortain and the other old gods, and whether LaFevers invented them or used existing lore.

All in all, a very engaging story that I’d recommend to fans of books like Graceling as well as medieval historical fiction.

Source: my public library

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Code Name VerityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This is the kind of book that you love from the beginning, where you worry about where the characters will end up, where you love every twist and turn and revelation, and where you trust that no matter how gut-wrenching the ending, you’re in good hands with the author. Knowing and loving Wein’s series that begins with The Winter Prince, and knowing the basic premise of the story, I had faith from the beginning, despite some knuckle-biting about wondering how bleak the story would get. I don’t want to describe the story too much and spoil anything, but suffice it to say that while the world is very different from Wein’s earlier books, her grasp of character and story and mood is as distinguished as ever.

I was wondering, before I got very far into the book, what is is about WWII stories that captivates our imaginations so much. They’re everywhere – kids books, teen books, adult books, movies and TV shows and all kinds of storytelling formats. Part of the reason, I think, is that there are so many stories to be told, so many countries involved, so many types of work that needed to be done. There’s the battlefield and the political arena and the homefront for so many different countries. We know certain stories very well – soldier’s stories and Holocaust stories especially – but there are still seemingly infiniate variations on those.

This one has a bit of the soldier’s story, but these are women who weren’t and couldn’t be regular special agents or pilots, so there story has a bit more mystery. It’s also partly the story of the homefront, and partly of occupied France, and partly of codes and secrets and spies. It may sound cheesy, but it is also, above all, the story of a friendship – one that wouldn’t have happened without the war. It’s rare to read a YA book without romance being a significant plot point, but this certainly fit the bill.

Source: ebook from NetGalley.

Publication date: May 15, 2012. Worth the wait.

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Blood Red RoadBlood Red Road by Moira Young

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

1st try in print: This came recommended, but the first 100 or so pages didn’t grab me – or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. It had holds at the library and I didn’t feel like getting even further in and risk feeling like I needed to finish it just because I’d read so much. Maybe another time.

2nd try on audio: The moral of this story is to trust your gut. If a book doesn’t grab you, it’s okay to quit even though people you trust rave and it wins awards like the Cybils. The premise was intriguing, and the beginning of the story sets up lots of potential themes. The father with his star reading, the heartstone, the complicated family relationships, midwinter twins, kids raised in near-isolation thrown into a rough world. But one after another, Young drops the ball on all this potential. The story becomes action-driven, rather than character-driven, which is fine if the action manages to hook you. It sure didn’t hook me – the cage fighting was the first thing to put me off, and by the time the big showdown at the end arrived, I was only interested in seeing whether she’d leave us with a cliff-hanger or a neater resolution.

The characters had great potentional – Saba’s adoring attitude towards her twin Lugh and her near-hatred of little sister Emmi could have had some great nuance, but other than a predictable build-up of affection for Emmi, nothing much happened. Like another reviewer pointed out, Saba has an incredible ability to fight and interact with the wider world considering her isolated upbringing. Others have compared her to some awesome kick-ass heroines, but she lacks their prickly likableness. The romance is dull and the heartstone’s role painfully predictable. I kept expecting various intrigues – I wanted Lugh to turn out to be a huge jerk, just because Saba idolized him. I wanted the king to be more interesting, but he was simply bizarre. I wanted more.

The audio version is nicely done, though, all things considered. The dialect that comes across as distracting on the page feels natural when spoken aloud, and Heather Lind does some good voices, nicely distinguishing characters.

Source: both versions from my public library

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