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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.

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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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I am alive, although awash in summer reading busy-ness and laziness at home. I wish “summer reading busy-ness” meant I’ve been reading in record quantities, but alas I’m just busy at work. We’ve been down a librarian for five weeks (sob) – two weeks longer than expected – and those of us holding down the fort are feeling the effects. We really do need three children’s librarians during the summer.

But the work is oh-so-satisfying, which helps make up for the occasional insanity. It’s endlessly entertaining to hand out prizes to kids and free books when they finish summer reading. It’s a relief to see some of the shelves empty off, and circulation go up, as people stock up for all that free time that summer brings. I suspect that parents are less likely to limit their school-age kids on how much they check out at once. As a librarian, I want to pile them up with books until they can’t see to walk upstairs!

Storytime is always a delight (except when all the background noise is coming from the parents, not the kids…) Three years into librarianship, I definitely feel like I have storytime down pat – I can throw it together quickly if I need to, and I feel confident in all my usual routines. I can’t decide if this means I should shake things up or leave them be.

Last summer I experimented with a teen craft program – teens have totally been the neglected group in my library for a long time – and it was poorly but faithfully attended (the same three girls came each week). This year I switched from evenings to afternoons and lowered the minimum age from 12 to 10. I think that combination worked, at least for now. I think most of the attendees have been between 10 and 13, but I’ve had much larger groups and they’re focused and enthusiastic. Last week we did duct tape wallets and roses (the wallets in particular required a lot of step-by-step instruction from me) and this week we did ‘make your own postcard.’ Next week we have someone lined up to come in and teach origami. I am calling it a success.

In terms of my personal reading, I’ve definitely slacked off on reviews (I gave myself permission to do that, but I didn’t expect to get this lazy…maybe there was a reason I became a perfectionist about it). Hopefully, after a little break, I’ll get back into the swing of things.

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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Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

I must have read a glowing review somewhere that inspired me to pick this up, but I no longer know who to blame. I don’t often read books that sound like Austen fan-fiction, but the beginning felt promising. James takes us through a recap of Pride and Prejudice from an outsider’s point of view, then catches us up on the events of the last six years, which is amusing and manages to entice. Then the mystery plot takes over – murder pollutes the shades of Pemberley! – and before you know it, you want to unravel the clues and find the solution.

Unfortunately, at this point in the game, hooked by the mystery, you realize that James’ prose isn’t nearly as diverting as Austen’s. You realize that she hasn’t done anything amusing or intriguing in terms of character development, and that the characters are still internally rehashing the events of P&P six years later. The mystery is intriguing, but because neither of the Darcys takes an active role in crime-solving, the reader is distanced from the action and is merely a spectator to the action. Indeed, the way the mystery is solved is not at all due to clue hunting or detecting, which really took the fun away from the resolution. By the time the mystery was good and solved, I was so impatient for the story to end that I could barely stand Darcy and Elizabeth’s wrap-up discussion.

I was left wanting to refresh my mind with some actual Austen prose and find some cutting remarks that might apply to James’ pale imitation of style.

Source: my public library

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Howl's Moving Castle (Castle, #1)Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is there to say about Sophie and Howl and Calcifer? What is there to say about Diana Wynne Jones, except that she had some spark of genius, some way of writing books that don’t feel like they could have been written by anyone else? Books, and characters, and marvelous little bits and pieces – objects and places that are infused with the best kind of magic.

Before this, I’d only read Fire and Hemlock, which is completely unlike this book in some ways, but also clearly from the same pen. Somehow, that book convinced me that I would enjoy anything she’d written, but for whatever reason I didn’t rush out to read them, knowing I had a nice large body of work waiting for me.

My kids’ bookgroup chose this as their April selection, based on the recommendation of one girl who’s recently become a DWJ convert. I owe her a debt of gratitude, because it jump-started me.

Sophie had me hooked from the beginning – she believes herself to be completely subject to fairy tale conventions, based on her birth order. As the oldest of three girls, she’s bound to fail at any quest or pursuit, and it’s best for her to just stay home and work at the hat shop and leave it to her youngest sister to successfully make her way in the world. Of course, that’s not how it goes at all, and Sophie turns out to be possessed of a marvelous kind of magic, the kind where she can persuade or harass others (people and things) into doing as she asks. I do love a good stubborn heroine.

Added to the cast of fabulous characters (hilariously vain Howl, grouchy Calcifer) is the moving castle itself. I suppose you can’t quite separate Calcifer from the castle, but it does feel like a another character, and its ability to be in four places at once is the kind of thing I love in fantasy novels. In fact, Jones manages a perfect balance between seriousness and humor in the whole book – I cared deeply about the characters at the same time that I was laughing and enjoying the ride.

Source: my public library

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Shortly after finishing the book, I watched the movie adaptation. While I was a bit distracted by analyzing differences between book and movie, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. They’re completely different animals in some ways, but they still have a core similarity in tone and feel. I recommend both, but maybe not back to back.

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