Monday, April 30, 2018

The Key to Everything by Pat Schmatz, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
For eleven-year-old Tash, Cap'n Jackie isn't just the elderly next-door neighbor — she's family. When she disappears, only Tash holds the key that might bring her back.

Tash didn't want to go to camp, didn't want to spend the summer with a bunch of strangers, didn't want to be separated from the only two people she has ever been able to count on: her uncle Kevin, who saved her from foster care, and Cap'n Jackie, who lives next door. Camp turns out to be pretty fun, actually, but when Tash returns home, Cap'n Jackie is gone. And Tash needs her — the made-up stories of dolphin-dragons, the warm cookies that made everything all right after a fight, the key Cap'n Jackie always insisted had magic in it. The Captain always said all Tash had to do was hold it tight and the magic would come. Was it true? Could the key bring Cap'n Jackie back? In a heartfelt and stunningly written story, Pat Schmatz introduces readers to a tenacious, fiercely loyal girl struggling to let go of the fantasies and fears of her childhood . . . and say yes to everything that lies ahead.

(208 pages)

Hmm. I enjoyed reading The Key to Everything while I was in it, but once I set it down I frankly just put it out of my mind entirely. I'm actually reviewing it several months after I read it, because I had no interest in reviewing it for so long and now I kind of have to.

It's hard to understand why I had this reaction after putting the book down, because it really is an interesting and engaging read. It does rather jump straight into the middle of a story by cutting to Tash's return home from summer camp after a big row with her next door neighbor/mother figure Cap'n Jackie. We basically just have to pick up the pieces of the story as the book goes along, which is fine but kind of disorienting at first because Tash's home situation is quite unique.

Cap'n Jackie is suddenly in a nursing home, and Tash is desperate to figure out how to reach her and save her, using the "magic" key from their childhood stories and finding a way to apologize for the nasty things she said before leaving for camp. It's an interesting and engaging (and emotional!) premise, and it's fairly well done.

But at the same time, I think I just didn't have enough personal experience with the characters and their dynamics to feel the full impact of the blows the Captain's injuries caused. I felt bad for Tash, but I also didn't really know Tash well enough to be fully invested in her story.

Perhaps that's just the curse of shorter books, which I'm not used to reading. Whatever it is, I do still recommend The Key to Everything if you're interested (with the caveat that there is a gay couple, so be warned if that's something you don't want). Maybe you can get more out of it than I did.

I'm surely not the only person who's enjoyed a book well enough but put it down feeling rather empty.  If that has happened to you, I want to hear about it in the comments!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Polaris by Michael Northrop, 2017

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Alone at sea, with only the stars to guide them...

The proud sailing ship Polaris is on a mission to explore new lands, and its crew is eager to bring their discoveries back home. But when half the landing party fails to return from the Amazon jungle, the tensions lead to a bloody mutiny. The remaining adults abandon ship, leaving behind a cabin boy, a botanist's assistant, and a handful of deckhands -- none of them older than twelve. Troubled by whispers of a strange tropical illness and rumors of a wild beast lurking onshore, the young sailors are desperate to steer the vessel to safety. When one of their own already missing and a strange smell drifting up from belowdecks, the novice crew begins to suspect that someone -- or something -- else is onboard. Having steeled themselves for the treacherous journey home, they now have more to fear than the raging waters of the Atlantic...

(288 pages)

Hmm. Wow. This is definitely very . . . different from the books I usually read.

For one thing, I usually don't go for books set on ships. I just don't find the pirate/mutiny/ship trouble stories very interesting, so I definitely would not have picked up Polaris on my own. But since Scholastic went to the trouble of sending me a copy, I had the interesting experience of picking up a book outside of my usual reading habits.

And I enjoyed it. Polaris is a very interesting blend of sci-fi and historical fiction, full of ship sailing details as well as horrifying scientific advancements. I scoffed at the sci-fi premise when it was first revealed in detail–and I still scoff, since it's utterly ridiculous from a biological standpoint–but it creates a real sense of terror and indeed horror on board the ship. I don't dabble much in horror stories, either, so it was an interesting change to read a book about a slow, creeping, almost unspeakable terror lurking belowdecks in wait.

I honestly would have liked the book even without all of that tension, just because the characters were well-drawn with interesting personalities and backstories. I really loved the way Northrop handled the group dynamics, showing not just stereotypical power struggles between characters but also depicting nuance and maturity as the group dynamics fluctuated with the changing situation belowdecks and navigationally. Some of the plot twists may have been a little obvious and/or stale (I'm pretty sure we all knew that ________ was a girl, didn't we?), but they're done in a clear-eyed way and fit into a larger narrative in a way that is still engaging and pretty well-done.

Honestly, while I enjoyed the ride, I did have a little bit of a hard time suspending my disbelief through to the very last page of the book. Polaris is not my usual cup of tea, so I'm not a real expert on this, but I thought the ending was a bit too soft for the genre it was aiming at. And the pseudo-science nearly drove me crazy by the end. A certain subset of kids are really going to love Polaris, though, and I say–as long as they're okay with a little bit of terror–let them at it. I'm sure they'll enjoy it.

How about you, when was the last time you read a book outside of your usual reading habits? Did it go well?

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Light on the Hill by Connilyn Cossette, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
After being branded during the battle of Jericho, Moriyah has had no prospects for marriage--until now. She hopes to please the man, but things go horribly wrong and she is forced to flee for her life. Seeking safety at one of the Levitical cities of refuge, she is unprepared for the dangers she faces, and the enemies--and allies--she encounters on her way.
(352 pages)

I chose to review A Light on the Hill because I really enjoyed her Wings of the Wind, which is apparently part of a different series but which is set in the same time period and community. Moriyah is even a fairly significant character in Wings of the Wind.

I have to say that while I was still entertained by A Light on the Hill, I don't think it's nearly as good as that other Cossette book. What I loved so much about Wings on the Wind was that it recreated an extremely important and vibrant time in Judeo-Christian history, one which almost never gets any real focus the way other periods of history do, and tied compelling and sympathetic characters to the grander arc of the Old Testament. God's acts were powerful, but they were also true to the Biblical accounts and thus the book was 100% plausible.

A Light on the Hill, however, falls into a trap that I always find strangely off-putting: it makes God into a character of sorts, who interacts with and directly guides the main character in more than one scene. I don't mean to be petty, but these sorts of storylines always get my goat because it feels like they turn God into a tool to advance the plot. Sure, they're meant to show His greatness and faithfulness etc., but I'm never a huge fan of this idea because the author has no idea whether that's actually how God would have acted in these situations. I also felt like the tethering to the Biblical narrative was a lot more tenuous in general, really.

Setting aside the religious aspect of the book, I also just didn't find the story as compelling. I still really love the idea of the cities of refuge, and I will very likely seek out future books in this new series (the "City of Refuge" series) just to see the implications of the idea played with in new ways. But rather than taking place in one of these cities, the book largely consists of Moriyah's attempts to reach one. It's fine as its own story, but I would have been more interested to read about life in the cities.

As for the romance, I never much cared for it. The insta-love was ridiculously fast here, and the whole dynamic between the two leads felt really hammy. I was more interested in Moryiah's relationship with the other important people in her life, including her surrogate mother figure and the orphaned boy she cared for before the accident. Those dynamics were sweet and interesting to read, and I enjoyed all the bits we had of them. I also enjoyed reading about Moryiah's journey to the recognition that she was more than just the scars on her face–it reminded me a little bit of Aza's journey to self-confidence in Gail Carson Levine's Fairest.

This review may seem very negative, but I did enjoy reading A Light on the Hill. I think I just keep returning to dwell on the could-have-beens with this book because I know from Wings on the Wind that it had the potential to be better. I do still recommend it if you're looking for a Christian historical fiction read. And tell us in the comments section down below, what is your favorite book about a protagonist who struggles with their physical appearance?

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Maddie thought she and Logan would be friends forever. But when your dad is a Secret Service agent and your best friend is the president's son, sometimes life has other plans. Before she knows it, Maddie's dad is dragging her to a cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

No phone.
No Internet.
And not a single word from Logan.

Maddie tells herself it's okay. After all, she's the most popular girl for twenty miles in any direction. (She’s also the only girl for twenty miles in any direction.) She has wood to cut and weapons to bedazzle. Her life is full.

Until Logan shows up six years later . . .

And Maddie wants to kill him.

But before that can happen, an assailant appears out of nowhere, knocking Maddie off a cliff and dragging Logan to some unknown fate. Maddie knows she could turn back- and get help. But the weather is turning and the terrain will only get more treacherous, the animals more deadly.

Maddie still really wants to kill Logan.

But she has to save him first.
(304 pages)

I know that Ally Carter is most famous for the Heist Society series, but I've never read them. Rather, I was excited to read this new book because I enjoyed her Embassy Row series. It's clear that Carter is devoted to writing books about high-flying characters with elite positions. I think it's like a form of wish-fulfillment for both the author and the readers, since most of us never really get to spend much quality time with spies or ambassadors or presidents (or their sons).

And really, Carter does it well. There's a reason she's so famous. I really enjoyed reading Not If I Saved You First: it's suspenseful, character-driven, tightly plotted, and engagingly written. The premise, of trying to escape a dangerous foreign agent alone in the middle of the already-dangerous Alaskan terrain, is a strong one and Carter knows how to milk it. I'm always a little hesitant about books set in the idealized wilderness of Alaska/Canada, just because it can become rather boring for those of us not into nature, but she strikes a good balance of focusing on the characters and the plot while using the Alaskan wilderness as a harrowing background.

I have to say that while I enjoyed Not If I Saved You First, I didn't like it as much as the Embassy Row books. A lot of that boils down, I think, to the protagonist: Maddie just isn't as interesting as Grace. Grace was brave but she was also broken, and scarred, and she had complex mental health issues. Maddie is just too perfect to be interesting: she's strong, mentally and physically, and she always has some sort of plan in place. At the points where she is scarred, I become less invested in her and more annoyed with her father/the author for putting her through such a horrible but frankly ridiculous upbringing. The reasoning for why they had to move to a desolate cabin in Alaska makes sense on the surface, but it feels contrived once you really start thinking about all the other options they could have pursued (and the fact that her father never actually told her the reason is just terrible!).

I did like Logan more, though, and I honestly wished we could have seen more of his inner turmoil or learned about his clashes with his family and life as the first son. The romantic tension was fun to read, if a little unrealistic, and I liked it on the whole.

Honestly, Not If I Save You First is fun and interesting. It's not fine literature, but it's entertaining. Fans of Ally Carter will surely love it, and I think that those of us who are less familiar with her writing will still enjoy the ride.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford, 2017

Warning: this is the sequel to Greenglass House. Do not read ahead unless you're okay with major spoilers from the first book!

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Welcome back to the irresistible world of Greenglass House where thirteen-year-old Milo is, once again, spending the winter holidays stuck in a house full of strange guests who are not what they seem. There are fresh clues to uncover as friends old and new join in his search for a mysterious map and a famous smuggler’s lost haul.
(464 pages)

When I reviewed Greenglass House about three years ago,  I wrote that it was a cozy and nice read that I enjoyed, even when some of the plot twists were a tad creepy. Now that I'm here reviewing the second one, and have had quite a bit of time to process the first one, I want to start out by saying that the fact that Meddie is a ghost added a whole layer of ambiance and character to the story that really enhanced it as a whole.

Ghosts of Greenglass House exploits this a bit with its title, I think, since while there are ghosts in Ghosts in Greenglass House that is just one storyline among many. throughout the book. I don't mind too much, though, because it does match the quirky style of the book.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this book. There's just something really cozy about reading a 450-page thick book set in a rambling old mansion trapped full of secretive characters, you know? It's largely a character-driven book, rather than being plot-focused like most books I read, and I enjoyed coming along for the ride rather than just rushing toward a climax. The ambiance in these books is awesome.

I don't think it's quite as good as its prequel, though, so I should touch on the negatives. First, it took me quite a bit longer to care about the new guests this time around. I came to be very interested in a couple of them, but I got many of the rest mixed up in my head even through to the end, which kind of muddled the conclusion. There may have been just a few too many characters in the story this time around.

Also, I wrote in my review of Greenglass House that I really appreciated reading about Milo's experience struggling with his identity after being adopted from China by white parents as a baby. Ghosts of Greenglass House continues to deal with his adoption, but it does it in a very different way: basically, when it comes up several times throughout the book, it focuses on Milo's attempts to learn more about Chinese culture, his hurt feelings due to some missteps by his schoolteacher, and his annoyance that people always make assumptions or ask rude questions when they first meet him and see him with his parents. I do appreciate that these are all valid topics to cover, and as a white person I am the first to admit that this is not really my area, but I have to say that Milford's treatment of Milo's experience felt extremely preachy and kind of nit-picky. She basically just uses him to teach the audience how really small comments can still hurt people, which is a good point, but I also think that Milo's reaction to some minor comments seem way out of proportion to their intent.

I think my biggest gripe is with the way his parents handle things: rather than really taking him by the hand and helping him, they offer to talk about it once or twice and then completely abandon him with something that has obviously been really bothering him. I think they're meant to be good parents because they recognize that they are inexperienced in racial issues since they're white, but really: they are his parents. If something is hurting him, it's their job to either fix the situation or help him cope with it and move past it.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading Ghosts of Greenglass House as a nice, lazy, relaxing read. It's a tad more convoluted than the first one, a tad less enjoyable, and in parts does feel like a rehash of its prequel, but Ghosts of Greenglass House was such a lovely read that it can afford to be a bit diminished and still be a very pleasurable read. If you read an enjoyed Greenglass House, then I recommend you give Ghosts of Greenglass House a try!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Supergifted by Gordon Korman, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Donovan Curtis has never been what anyone would call “gifted.” But his genius friend Noah Youkilis is actually supergifted, with one of the highest IQs around. After years at the Academy for Scholastic Distinction, all Noah dreams of is the opportunity to fail if he wants to. And he’s landed in the perfect place to do it—Donovan’s school.

Almost immediately, Noah finds himself on the wrong side of cheerleading captain Megan Mercury and alpha jock Hash “Hashtag” Taggart. Sticking up for Noah lands Donovan in the middle of a huge feud with Hashtag. He’s told to stay away from the sports star—or else.

That should be the end of it, but when a freak incident suddenly makes Donovan a hero, he can’t tell anyone about it since Hashtag is involved. So Noah steps in and becomes “Superkid.” Now he’s gone from nerd to titan at school. And it may have gone more than a little bit to his head.

(304 pages)

Anyone who has followed this blog for long knows that I am a huge fan of Gordon Korman's. I have read most of his backlog, and I make a point of reading every one of his new books as they come out. Ungifted, the prequel to Supergifted, is one of my absolute favorites of his books.  I'm not just saying that, either: I have literally given it to my friends as birthday presents more than once, because it's a funny and engaging read that I knew they would enjoy.

That being said, I obviously came into Supergifted with a lot of enthusiasm and very high expectations.

And it largely did deliver. I have to say that it doesn't quite reach the same level of awesomeness as Ungifted–it's a little less wackily original, and it sidelines a couple of my favorite characters–but it's still a fun read in its own right. Perhaps most importantly, it feels like a genuine continuation of the first book. I always hate when the tone changes from book to book, or when characters act completely different in later books. But Donovan's and Noah's stupid decisions ring completely true and realistic within the context of Ungifted, so I took them in stride and laughed at their ridiculousness rather than being bothered by them.

As I said, I didn't enjoy the book quite as much. I found myself getting rather annoyed by the characters at certain times,  and their dynamics were kind of strange. The storyline with how underappreciated Donovan is at home, and his strained relationship with his brother-in-law, was probably my least favorite. I also didn't appreciate that Rachel was sidelined and basically replaced with Megan.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Supergifted and I'm glad I had the chance to read it.  If you have the opportunity, and you read and enjoyed Ungifted, then I recommend that you check out Supergifted.