Friday, May 29, 2015

Masterminds by Gordon Korman, 2015

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on Goodreads
From bestselling author Gordon Korman comes a thrilling new middle grade trilogy about a group of kids living in a Pleasantville-type town who discover a dark secret that connects them to some of the greatest criminal masterminds of their time.
Eli Frieden lives in the most boring town in the world: Serenity, New Mexico. Only thirty kids live in the idyllic town, where every lawn is perfectly manicured and everyone has a pool and a basketball hoop. Honesty and kindness are the backbone of the community. There is no crime in this utopia.
Eli has never left town…. Why would he ever want to? But everything changes the day he and his friend Randy bike to the edge of the city limits. Eli is suddenly struck with a paralyzing headache and collapses. Almost instantly, a crew of security—or “Purple People Eaters,” as the kids call them—descend via helicopter. Eli awakens in the hospital, and the next day, Randy and his family are gone. 
As Eli convinces his friends Tori and Malik to help him investigate Randy’s disappearance, it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems in Serenity. As the clues mount to reveal a shocking discovery, the kids realize they can trust no one—least of all their own parents . . .
(336 pages)

I got all excited about Masterminds in January, when it came out, but somehow lost track of it before I ccould get my act together enough to find myself a copy. Four months after it came out, I was ambling around the library looking for good books to read on a road trip. I stopped by the Gordon Korman section for some old favorites, and snatched up Masterminds instead! I picked it up that evening and . . . well, let's just say Masterminds didn't make it to the roadtrip. There's a reason my blog is called "Read Till Dawn," okay?

The minute I first read the teaser for Masterminds, I had all sorts of predictions for what would happen. I drew an immediate parallel to Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time, which also revolves around a secluded city that turns out to have many secrets - many of which the parents were keeping from their children. That comparison holds largely true after finishing the novel, but there are actually a few other books that Masterminds reminds me of: Margaret Peterson Haddix's Escape From Memory, plus another Margaret Peterson Haddix that I can't name for fear of spoiling the plot twist and several of Korman's other books. The plot is very reminiscent of some of my favorite Haddix books, which means both that I loved it and that I had seen almost all of it before. The characters felt like combinations of Korman's other characters, most especially Amber (a slightly less likeable version of Rachel from No More Dead Dogs - link goes to my review) and Tori (whose innate climbing skills harken back to Pitch from the Swindle series), though as a whole they are unique enough to feel separate from earlier characters.

If I had read this book five years ago I would have adored it to pieces. Reading it now, the whole thing felt like one big rehash of a bunch of other books (see paragraph #2!). It's a matter of exposure: I've already been exposed to almost all of the themes and twists that dominated Masterminds. If I had read it first before reading the other books, then those would have been the books that seemed a little repetitive. But I'll be completely honest: even with all of its predictability, I still kind of adored Masterminds. It's exciting, it's grabbing, it's got drama and mental gymnastics and deception and identity crises. There's a reason I've read so many books with themes that parallel Masterminds, and it's not because I didn't like them. 

To find a book that combines so many of my favorite plot points was pretty awesome, and to find one written by one of the best authors I know was just about perfect. I will be highly recommending Masterminds to anyone who seems like a good fit for it, plus a few who probably wouldn't be very good fits. I will also be keeping an eye out for the sequels - and this time, I won't wait four months to track down a copy!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Top Ten Books I'm Going to Read This Summer (Not Necessarily on a Beach)

I don't live very close to a beach, so I'm afraid I don't spend much time lying on the sand and working on my tan. Actually, I don't tan, so I would just turn bright red like a lobster after it's been boiled - and that doesn't really sound that appealing, anyway. So I decided to change my post slightly, and list ten books that I want to read this summer. Most of them are newer, but there are a few older releases that I missed the first time around.

1. Rebel McKenzie by Candice Ransom

2. The Arctic Code by Matthew J. Kirby

4. Goblins by Philip Reeve


6. Jinx by Sage Blackwood

7. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

8. Greenglass House by Kate Milford

9. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

10. All the Answers by Kate Messner

And there we go! What books are you planning to read this summer? Post them in the comments section below, then go on over to The Broke and the Bookish to check out more Top Ten lists.

Monday, May 25, 2015

What Color is Your Parachute? For Teens (3rd edition) by Carol Christen, 2015

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on Goodreads 
No idea what you want to be? No worries! This fun, rewarding guide draws on the time-tested principles of the career classic What Color Is Your Parachute? to help you discover your passions, skills, and potential college majors and dream jobs.
Why now? Because when you identify your interests and passions early, you can make informed decisions on what additional schooling (and tuition debt) makes sense for your chosen field.
With fresh updates on the specific challenges of today’s job-market, this new edition features activities and advice on information interviewing, social media, internships, and more. Most importantly, it’s packed with big-picture advice that will set you up to land the job that’s perfect for who you are—and who you want to be.
(192 pages)

I'm a high school junior-almost-senior. You know what that means: I'm big-time stressing about college. After years of deliberating I've gotten no closer to a definitive decision about what career I want to pursue in college. Computer science? Information Technologies? Accounting? Publishing? Who knows? So when I saw that I could get a review copy of What Color is Your Parachute, I jumped at the chance.

But of course, I mentioned I'm a junior planning to go to college. And you may not have noticed, but it's May - otherwise known to high school students worldwide as "AP testing month." I got through about half of the first chapter and then completely dropped it because my brain was too tired to do anything in my free time but watch I Love Lucy.

I'm back, though, and I spent the last week slowly working my way through the rest of the book. I can't say I enjoyed reading it, because it's not that kind of book, but I do think it was very thought-provoking. The parachute idea is genius, it really is. It took me weeks to finish filling it out, mainly because there's quite a bit of work that goes into completing each section and I didn't have the time to do it (which goes back to the whole "AP testing" thing). I honestly probably didn't put as much thought into my answers as I should have, so I think if you really let everything simmer the way Christen wants you to, it would take a month or so. The second half of the book focuses on tips for conducting interviews, applying for jobs, etc. It was a little less interesting for me, because I'm not there yet, but it could be a very helpful resource in the future. There's also a chapter about managing your online presence. I didn't really like that one very much, because I don't use my real name online for safety reasons. It might be more useful for other people, though.

Now it's time for my biggest complaint with this book: its physical format. The parachute is just a tad too small, so you have to cram everything in with barely-legible small font. The text next to the parachute literally says "To make it easier to use, photocopy this page and enlarge it." Then the introduction to part one has this helpful tip: "Take your book to a print shop and have it spiral bound. Removing the spine makes the book lie flat so it's easier to read and photocopy." Do you see a problem here? Why do I have to get the book spiral bound, and then enlarge the parachute? Surely it would be much more convenient if they did that in the first place? It's not exactly a huge turn-on to open the book and be faced with "go spend your money and time doing something we could have done, but didn't want to!"

Physical logistics aside, What Color is Your Parachute? a great resource that I highly recommend for anyone who's still deciding what to do after high school. When you're ready to do some soul-searching, start filling out your parachute. When you're looking for some good career-search resources, flip through What Color is Your Parachute? - you'll find everything you could ever need, though it's unfortunately scattered throughout the text instead of gathered in one place. When you're looking for a one-stop quick-guide to planning for your future, give What Color is Your Parachute? a try. I will definitely be referring back to it in the future.

I received a copy of this book through the Blogging for Books programs in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 2015

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Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?
This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making.
(316 pages)

The War That Saved My Life is a great book for several reasons - several separate reasons. That's because so much is going on, emotionally and physically, that a couple books could have been made off of each separate theme.

One book could provide a fascinating look at what life was like for the uneducated kids from London slums, sent to live with (relatively) rich families in the countryside. Chapters could have been written focusing on the struggles those city kids faced, missing their families and living with complete strangers in a world completely foreign to their own. Many children were actually summoned back to London by parents who missed their kids, and thought that since the Germans hadn't bombed London yet, they never would. This description of events is so different from those in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that right there I would have been fascinated!

But that's not all Bradley did. There was also Susan's story, a story of rejection and loss and solitude. Susan's best friend (or maybe more, but I prefer to ignore the signs) Becky died a few years earlier, leaving Susan the house they had shared and remembrances everywhere of what Susan had lost. At the beginning of the book Susan is sad and lonely, and doesn't believe that anything can change that. She is forced to step forward by Ada and Jamie's arrival, and it is great to watch her begin to move on from her own troubles as she helps the kids move on from theirs. From the teaser I was afraid it would be one of those "she initially hates them but gradually comes to love them, then admits it in the end" kind of book. On the contrary, Susan only refuses to take the kids because she fears she's not emotionally fit to care for anyone other than herself. It's soon obvious to the reader that she, while struggling to adapt to their presence, quickly comes to love them. It's far from obvious to the affection-starved children, however, and Ada struggles through much of the book to reconcile Susan's kindness with the actions of someone who by her own admission didn't want kids.

And then of course there's the story of Ada and Jamie. The other stories weave themselves into a background tapestry, combining with a thousand smaller story bits to form a gigantic backing for the central figures - or really, figure. Sorry Jamie, but Ada is the star of this story! It's Ada who tells the tale, her limited understanding of the world painting a harsher picture than any master needle could stitch. She doesn't know what grass is. She doesn't know how to work a flush toilet. She has never heard of crutches. The word "clubfoot" has literally never entered her vocabulary, even though it is the condition that defines her entire life. She thinks that Susan will hit her. And as all the imperfections of Ada's past come to light, it is easy to see that the war does, indeed, save Ada's life. She is just so damaged it takes her a while to understand this.

It's funny, I didn't love The War That Saved My Life when I started writing this review - I only really, really liked it. But the only negatives I can think of are so minor when compared to the positives that they don't really feel worth mentioning - so I guess that means I do love The War That Saved My Life! I'm not going to run out and buy my own copy any time soon, but I will definitely be re-reading it in the future. And I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who's old enough to appreciate it.

Because the more I think about it, the more I love this book.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Teaser Tuesdays: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 2015 (May 19)

Okay, so for those of you who are new to this meme, here's how it works:
Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My current read is The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?
This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making.
(316 pages)

This week's quote comes from page 184:
She [Susan] squared her shoulders and stalked into the night, and I watched her go, and wanted Mam.
I wanted Mam to be like Susan.
I didn't really trust Susan not to be like Mam.
Does this interest you? Check back on Friday for my review!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, 2009

Note: This will be my last new review until May 22nd (next Friday). I thought I could make it through AP season without neglecting my blog, but I just don't have the time or energy to write reviews. As soon as this one goes live, am completely out of fresh content. I can post over some old reviews from Goodreads if you want me to - I'm not so short on time I can't copy and paste! - but I'm not sure if that isn't cheating. If you want me to do that, post in the comments and I'll pick out my best reviews to transfer over.
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on Goodreads
Ivy June Mosely and Catherine Combs, two girls from different parts of Kentucky, are participating in the first seventh-grade student exchange program between their schools. The girls will stay at each other’s homes, attend school together, and record their experience in their journals. Catherine and her family have a beautiful home with plenty of space. Since Ivy June’s house is crowded, she lives with her grandparents. Her Pappaw works in the coal mines supporting four generations of kinfolk. Ivy June can’t wait until he leaves that mine forever and retires. As the girls get closer, they discover they’re more alike than different, especially when they face the terror of not knowing what’s happening to those they love most.

Hmm. I'm wondering if part of my apathy toward the book comes from reading it at the wrong time or something. It has all the pieces that I normally love in a story, but this time around it just felt a little tired. Then again, I'm tired, so who knows whether the book is to fault?

The characterization is pretty well done. Ivy June and Catherine are very typical twelve-year-olds, and they are painted with the right mixture of faults and merits to be neither saccarine angels or cliche cheeky devils. The characterization (now that I think about it a little more) might err slightly on the side of the generic, but it serves its purpose and is done very well.

The depiction of city life seemed really straight-on to me, warts and all. The attitude the "city folk" have toward their destitute neighbors is a very realistic cocktail of curiosity, snobbishness, pity, and (in some people) spite. I enjoyed watching Ivy June interact with the city for the first time, seeing my culture through the eyes of a newbie.

As for Ivy June's culture . . . I don't know. I was definitely stressing right alongside her when things got scary in the second half of the book, but when it comes to the town as a whole I had a hard time connecting. Do people really live like that, in America, in the 21st century? Are outhouses really still a thing out in rural areas? I have a hard time suspending my inside realist and accepting the fact that Ivy June lives such a ninteenth-century life. I couuld be completely wrong, though - I don't really know much about rural Kentuky. If anyone knows, I would love to learn whether this aspect of the story was realistic or not.

At the end of the day, I liked Faith, Hope, and Ivy June, but I wasn't swept away. I almost wanted more. The similarities and contrasts between Ivy June and Catherine was interesting, especially once things started going wrong in the second half of the book, but when I put the book down I felt almost apathetic toward it. Somehow I didn't really connect at all with the characters - I felt like I'd seen everything before. Perhaps you might be able to get more out of it than I did; I think it is a good book, it just didn't really do for me.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Genuine Sweet by Faith Harkey, 2015

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on Goodreads 
Twelve-year-old Genuine Sweet, of tiny Sass, Georgia, can grant any wish . . . except her own. It's a peculiar predicament, considering how much she could use a few wishes. New friends help Genuine give her family a boost--and then she takes her gift global! Life finally seems to be on the mend. But when she's faced with unexpected trouble that no amount of wishing can fix, Genuine must puzzle out the difference between wishing for a better life and building one.
Told in the engaging, irresistible voice of Genuine Sweet herself, Faith Harkey's debut novel spins a remarkable tale of a small-town girl with big-time magic and an even bigger heart.

(288 pages)

I needed this book. Neck-deep in studying for my AP exams, my brain was fried and my patience thin. I had the sinking sensation that only comes when my stock of reviews has bled dry and I've got a week of reviews in my backlog before I'm plumb out of content. I had a couple of books on my review pile, but none that really caught my eye and made me pour out a heartfelt review for. The TBR pile at the foot of my bed was full of appealing titles, but they had been sitting there waiting for so long that they already felt cliche and already done.

And that's where Genuine Sweet came in. I'd seen a review of it somewhere and requested it on a whim, and the day I hit my all-time low this new, shiny book popped into my hands screaming "I'm fun! I'm unique! I'll make you smile!" And it sure was. And did. Out of all the small-town-quirky-magic books I've read in my life, this one has carved its own spot. Where many "uniquely quirky" books fail in their use of the same old outside-the-box tropes, Genuine Sweet manages to take a lonely girl with negligent/dead parents, a loving/wise grandmother, and a new best friend, and actually make something new out of it.

The idea of wish-fetching is a very neat one, and I love that Harkey uses it to dig deep into the selfishness of human nature, through the people who harass Genuine for wishes, and the true potential of wish fetching - saving people in third-world countries. The fact that Geniune and Jura are so concerned about making the world a better place was just awesome.

However, I would be leery of recommending Genuine Sweet as a Middle Grade book. Harkey crafts a great story, but she includes enough mature themes that i know I for one won't be handing this off to my middle-school aged brother. For example, Genuine has an extremely sweet and touching slow-bloom relationship with a boy (whom I won't name for fear of spoilers) that I absolutely adored for as long as I could forget the fact that they were in middle school. Then I remembered, and I liked it a whole lot less. It's just weird when they're that age!

Actually, that's probably the biggest issue with this book: Genuine's age. If only she were seventeen, and then I could adore the book to pieces without feeling uncomfortable! As it is, I can still adore it, but I can't figure out who to recommend it to. I guess I'd offer it to fans of books like SavvyScumble, Drizzle, and Remarkable. It ranks right up there by the best of this sub-genre of quirky small-town magic, and would be absolutely perfect if Genuine were just five years older.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Day in the Life of a Homeschooler

I'm sorry I didn't post my regular Teaser Tuesday or Top Ten Tuesday posts yesterday! I had my first AP exam of the year on Monday (Environmental Science - fingers crossed until I get my score in July!), and my brain was such mush that I couldn't string more than a few words together at a time. If I'd posted anything, it would have been rubbish. As an apology for breaking routine, I decided to break routine further and post on a Wednesday with something that's been in draft form for almost a month now. I hope you like it!

You may or may not know this, but I'm homeschooled. That's right, I do school at home. On the couch. In my pajamas. Most people have a hard time grasping how this could possibly count as work, and I guess I can't blame them if all they see of homeschooling comes from popular culture and the Duggars.

I thought I'd post a rough sketch of my daily routine, including a to-do list from a month ago, so you can see what a homeschool life is really like.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

8:30 - Wake up
Yes, I wake up at 8:30. I know, I'm jealous of me too.

8:30-9:00 - Eat breakfast
Sometimes I work on reviewing some vocab while I eat. I use Memrise for vocab review, partly because they have an app I can use around the house.

9:00-12:00 - School
See list below

12:00-1:30 - Break
I'm crocheting a car-seat afghan for my cousin's unborn baby! It's my first real crocheting project, and is extremely addicting. I only wish I could crochet and type at the same time - that would really help me get things done faster!

1:30-6:30ish - More school
See list below for the specifics. I'm a bit iffy on when exactly I finish my school day - for example, on the day I'm writing this I didn't finish until 7:15. It varies a lot from day to day, depending on what I have to do.

6:30-9:30 - Relax/Eat Supper
This is when I get the bulk of my free time. I do my chores, read a book, and (of course!) work on my blog. But then sometimes I'm tired, so I just watch TV instead.

9:30 - 10:00 - Get ready for bed, talk to parents, wind down

10:00-10:30 - Read and/or blog in bed
I often work on my blog right before bed, because I can do that on my iPad. My sister won't let me leave my bedside light on because it keeps her up, so I can't really read a book in bed.

10:30 (ish) - Lights out

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My school work isn't really parceled into specific time slots like it used to be, and every day is different. Here's my to-do from last Tuesday. I was prepping for my macroeconomics final and an environmental science unit test, and beginning my capstone speech project in English:

AP Macroeconomics (online):
~Read through Chapter 12 of my 5 Steps to a 5 review book for AP Macroeconomics
~Put the end-of-chapter vocabulary into Memrise

AP Environmental Science (online):
~Read back through the chapter in the textbook
~Water (i.e. review) my vocab on Memrise
~Take the lesson quiz, which covers all of the material on the upcoming test

AP English (online):
~Write at least one double-spaced page

Spanish (tutor):
~Spend at least 20 minutes working with the textbook and online component

SAT (online/study book):
~Take a Critical Reading practice quiz

Pre-Calculus:
~45 minutes of math (I was doing combinations, permutations, probabilities, and odds)

Art:
Finish painting my paper mache fish

Bible:
~About 20 minutes of reading. I'm planning to get through it in two years, and am really behind right now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When I was writing this post I was wiped out from an exhausting week of finishing the English project, taking my Macroeconomics final, and studying for my science test. I went for a quick walk with my sister to clear my head before taking the second half of the test, and we stopped to talk briefly with a man who lives in our neighborhood. He asked us why we weren't in school, and I explained that we were homeschooled. He laughed as though we were sharing an inside joke and chortled "I can tell you're working really hard today!" I gritted my teeth and smiled along with him, and just kept walking.

Five minutes later I ran into him again, this time in front of my house along with two of my siblings (both of whom insisted that I go around the block again). There was a couple and their little girl who stopped to chat with the man, and he introduced us to them with the explanation that we were homeschooled and obviously (chuckle) working really hard.

Yeah. I took a fifteen minute break from studying for my AP science test, and the minute I stepped foot outside my front door I got slack for being a slacker. It annoyed me just a little.

But I'm not afraid to laugh at myself. Most homeschoolers have a pretty good sense of humor. The comedian Tim Hawkins is a homeschool father, and he made a hilarious parody of the Addams Family theme song called "The Homeschool Family." It plays on all the common homeschool tropes (some of which are actually true!) and I have yet to meet a homeschool parent or student who didn't find it hilarious. Here it is if you want to watch it:



Do you have any burning questions about homeschooling? Put them in the comments section, and I'll be sure to answer all of them. Also, let me know if you want me to expand this into a series of posts. I was thinking I might do that, but I only will if you guys are interested in reading it.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Gollywhopper Games: Friend or Foe by Jody Feldman, 2015

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on Goodreads 
Chock-full of puzzles, riddles, and challenges for the reader to solve along with the main characters, this companion to the first two Gollywhopper Games books offers readers plenty of action and fun. The perfect choice for fans of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Chasing Vermeer.
Zane is not that interested in the Gollywhopper Games. He'd rather play football and is sure that he's headed straight for the NFL. But when he gets his second concussion, his parents tell him, "No football for a year." Instead, to his surprise, he gets a chance to compete in the Gollywhopper Games. Zane's sense of strategy, his physical strength, and his competitive edge are all assets, and so is his ability to motivate his teammates and get them to work together. Zane becomes particularly close to Elijah, a young and scrawny genius who is friendly, awkward, and funny—Zane's polar opposite. These two unlikely friends end up head-to-head in the final challenge, where Elijah's quick thinking and Zane's physical strength make it a tough fight. This is a fun and fast-paced and interactive read for fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society.
(432 pages)

It's rather ironic that this third book is called "Friend or Foe," because the first two Gollywhopper books are much more cutthroat than this installment. Friend or Foe actually focuses more on the teamwork aspect of the Games than the sabotage, and while there is still a side plot of subterfuge, this time it's centered squarely on the administrative side and doesn't really involve the contestants.

The first book was awesome, full of adventures and puzzles in a Neverland-like atmosphere. What really made it great, though, was that there was an actual story underpinning the entire narrative; we don't just read it to find out who wins, we read it because we wanted Gil to get some justice from the company that wrongfully accused his father of thievery. The second book, The New Champion (click to read my review), continued this thread of fighting for something with the story of the under-valued Cameron competing against his superstar older brother. Friend or Foe follows this pattern as well, but this time Zane isn't facing any direct motivation from his family.

Well, he sort of is, but not really. His parents fight a lot and he thinks the money will make them reconcile. Deep down, I don't think he really believes this though. He just throws it in front of himself as a way to get himself absorbed in the Game. You see, he largely sees the Games as a distraction from the fact that he's not playing football that summer. Why is he not playing football, you ask? Well, because he had two concussions and his brain needs a break. He's terrified that his parents won't let him ever play again, and equally terrified that he'll get another concussion and his brain will turn to mush. He sees the Games as a way to avoid thinking about everything, and to just lose himself for a few days.

The irony I mentioned at the beginning of this review, about how the title belongs more to the other Gollywhopper Games books, actually runs deeper than the fact that sabotage doesn't take a front seat this time. You see, Zane quickly becomes best friends with fellow contestant and kid genius Elijah. As the Games continue Zane and Elijah stay realistic about the fact that they are competing against each other, but they never become nasty or overly competitive - in fact, they spend quite a bit of time commiserating over hard puzzles and complimenting each other when one of them did a great job. A lot of this comes from the fact that they both want to win, but aren't completely obsessed with the Games; they know how to step back, take a deep breath, and give each other a thumbs up. It was awesome, and their friendly dynamics were one of my favorite things about the book.

The biggest problem with this book is a lack of novelty, and that's really not its falt. Feldman has used the same basic premise three times now, and while she does a stellar job shaking things up as much as she can each time, it's just not possible to capture the same sort of excitement every single time. However, it's still a great book and a fun read, and I highly recommend it to fans of the first two books - or just puzzle books in general!

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau, 2008

It’s been several months since Lina and Doon escaped the dying city of Ember and, along with the rest of their people, joined the town of Sparks. Now, struggling through the harsh winter aboveground, they find an unusual book. Torn up and missing most of its pages, it alludes to a mysterious device from before the Disaster, which they believe is still in Ember. Together, Lina and Doon must go back underground to retrieve what was lost and bring light to a dark world.
In the fourth Book of Ember, bestselling author Jeanne DuPrau juxtaposes yet another action-packed adventure with powerful themes about hope, learning, and the search for truth.

(293 pages)

Was Diamond of Darkhold as good as the first two books (here and here)? No. But I was surprised how much better Diamond was than that dreadful prequel, Prophet of Yonwood (my review here) - in fact, it was only slightly less compelling than The People of Sparks was. And when you're writing the third book set around the same post-apocalyptic community, things are bound to get a little redundant. DuPrau does her best to combat this, taking old settings and recasting them in a whole new light.

The personification is wonderful: everyone, even minor characters, have their own personalities that are unique enough that you can differentiate between them, but they don't fall into stereotypes. Besides the main characters Lina and Doon there are many minor characters both old and new who play important roles in the story, all of whom have various backstories that meld into the larger story. Sometimes those backstories are short, but then again sometimes real-life backstories are short, too.

I love Lina and Doon, and I really enjoyed seeing them again. Their character development hasn't come very far from the first book, but it's definitely noticeable that they are both braver, stronger, and confident than they were in Ember. Their friendship has grown so that they are not just allies, but best friends as well. I appreciated that DuPrau didn't take their relationship to the next level during the bulk of the book, and left information about their future for the last chapter. The romantic in me hates that we didn't get to see Lina and Doon as a couple, but the realist in me appreciates that. For one thing, they're only like fourteen in this book. For another, they were busy! It's so annoying in most dystopian books how the main characters focus more on their love interests than they do on their missions. In the Ember books, romance is the last thing from everyone's mind and that makes my realist side extremely happy.

If you loved the first two Ember books, and then I highly recommend you read this as well. It brings the story full circle, tying everything off with a great mixture of realism and optimism throughout. Please don;t begin the series here, though - the first two books are both outsanding, and set the stage for this final book in the series.