Tag Archive | E-Books

Book Review: Up to This Pointe

Up to This Pointe
Up to This Pointe by Jennifer Longo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’ve been in Antarctica a total of eighty-three minutes, so I’m positive more exciting surprises will probably (hopefully) reveal themselves, but for now, the most intriguing thing about McMurdo, the American science station, is all the condoms.

Synopsis: At seventeen, Harper Scott is on the verge of achieving her lifelong dream. Since they were very small, she and her best friend, Kate, have been following The Plan. The Plan involves total dedication to ballet, and it culminates in both of them joining the San Francisco Ballet shortly after their early graduation from high school. But Harper doesn’t have Kate’s undeniable natural ability, so despite all the years of hard work, one audition might just crush her dreams. When things get suddenly and surprisingly complicated, Harper decides to follow her distant relative Robert Falcon Scott’s footsteps to Antarctica. She manages to land a highly coveted research assistant position for the six-month winter at McMurdo. No matter how far she goes, though, the problems she has to deal with come right along.

Review: This is a finely-crafted young adult novel, packed with descriptive details that bring life in San Francisco and Antarctica to life. The chapters alternate between Harper’s present, in Antarctica, and what happened back in San Francisco several months earlier. The sharp dichotomy between the first two chapters sets the tone for the book, as the reader knows where Harper ends up, but has no idea how she got there. Enough information about ballet is provided that readers without a background in dance can understand, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming. Life at McMurdo, too, is explained through the eyes of a newcomer without any tedious “information dumps”. For reader who do want to know more, there is a short bibliography at the end, listing recommended books and films.

Personal Thoughts: I’ve long been fascinated by Antarctica, and I dearly hope to visit one day. (I found all but one of the books on Antarctica in the bibliography already in my to-read queue here at GoodReads.) I loved the glimpse into the life of those staying there long-term, rather than tourists. I kind of wish they hadn’t gone for the ballet pun in the title, but that’s really just me.

Recommend to: Fans of character-driven contemporary realistic fiction

Source: e-ARC courtesy of NetGalley

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Book Review: Mysteries According to Humphrey (According to Humphrey #8)

Mysteries According to Humphrey

Mysteries According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A mystery is like a puzzle. It can be something unsqueakably scary, like a thing that goes THUMP in the night.

Synopsis: It’s hamster Humphrey’s second year in room 26 of Longfellow School, and by the beginning of October, he’s getting to know his new classmates. Mrs. Brisbane has just started reading “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, and Humphrey is just as disappointed as everyone else when she stops in the middle of the story to move on to another lesson. Disappointment turns to dismay when Mrs. Brisbane doesn’t return to school the next day, then is replaced (temporarily, Humphrey hopes!) by a substitute teacher named Mr. E., who seems to want to play with the students instead of teach them. Humphrey decides to follow the example of Sherlock Holmes and sets out to investigate Mrs. Brisbane’s disappearance as well as a few other mysteries as only a determined class pet in a cage with a lock-that-doesn’t-lock can. And, maybe, along the way, he’ll find out just what happens in that story about the man with the red hair.

Review: This is the eighth installment of the “According to Humphrey” series, and he is just as charming as ever. Fans of the series will enjoy this new adventure, but reading all the previous volumes isn’t strictly necessary. At the end of each short chapter, Humphrey shares something he’s learned in his “Detectionary”, and there is a list of the “Top 10 Tips for Beginning Detectives” at the end of the book.

Recommend to: Middle grade readers looking for a fun and funny light mystery, as well as fans of books in this series and other animal fiction series.

Source: E-book checked out from my public library (via Overdrive).

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Review: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

 The Fire Horse Girl
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jade Moon dreams of leaving home, of escaping the tiny Chinese village where she lives alone with her father, her grandfather, and their faithful servant, surrounded by gossiping “Aunties” who are all too familiar with her many faults: clumsiness, stubbornness, and – perhaps worst of all – a longing for independence. All she can see is a future married off to a local brickmaker, but that changes with the arrival of a stranger. Sterling Promise arrives from Hong Kong with news that an uncle Jade Moon never knew she had passed away recently, leaving behind papers that could allow Sterling Promise and Jade Moon’s father into the wide open promised land of America. If she could just get to that new country, Jade Moon thinks, what possibilities could await her?

The United States of 1923, though, is wary of admitting more Chinese immigrants, and Jade Moon’s long sea journey is followed by detainment on Angel Island. Getting to San Francisco will take cunning and bravery, and surviving there will be even harder.

Fire Horse Girl is a complicated piece of historical fiction. Honeyman explores the life of a girl in early 20th-century China, the San Francisco of the 1920s, and the Chinese immigrant experience on Angel Island, a bit of American history little known outside the West coast. The stories aren’t so much woven together as tacked onto one another, which may be why the pace drags in places. Jade Moon is a likeable character because of – rather than despite – her prickliness, as the independent nature that seems to offend her contemporaries has strong appeal for twenty-first century readers. Story-telling is a theme that recurs throughout her narration, and she is determined to tell her own story.

A lengthy author’s note tells how Honeyman came to the tale and provides further information on the historical events, people, and places that inspired her, as well as a paragraph on Chinese astrology. “The next Fire Horse girls,” she notes, “will be born in 2026.”

Recommend to: teens who like strong heroines and a mixture of action and history with a dash of romance.

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley

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Book Review: Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

The Barovier family furnace / has molded glass on Murano
for nearly two hundred years, since 1291 / when the Venetian government
required that all furnaces move / to my island home.

Sisters of Glass

Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
When Maria was just an infant, her father declared that she would one day marry a nobleman, even though such a fate should rightfully belong to her elegant older sister, Giovanna. Maria would much rather learn to blow glass in the family fornicas, but that work is for men only, even after her father’s death and the onset of financial trouble for the family. Trapped by tradition at 15, can Maria simply ignore her feelings forever, especially the feelings she has for the orphaned young glassblower who has joined the family business?

Review:
Fifteenth-century Murano provides the historical backdrop for this story of two sisters caught between what they wish they could do and what they feel they must do. Hemphill’s prose poems are full of fine details, but they never capture the intensity of emotion Maria ought to feel. Rather than bringing the reader closer to Maria – as in Caroline Starr Rose’s May B. – the terse narrative leaves the reader distant from the action. The form works in May B. precisely because May is alone for most of the novel; the poems read as her thoughts rather than as formal writing, particularly because the reader knows May isn’t actually writing anything down. Maria, on the other hand, is surrounded by people, and her interactions with them lose immediacy as conversations are rendered
in short bursts
rather than as
meaningful discussion.

Despite this weakness, the unusual setting, the timeless themes of sibling rivalry and familial duty, and the star-crossed romance (with its slightly-too-convenient conclusion) are sure to appeal to more than a few tweens and teens looking for something light and lovely.

On shelves March 27, 2012.

Final Word:
A light and lovely novel-in-verse for t(w)een fans of historical romance.

Source:
E-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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Book Review: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy

In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages.” But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one true path. considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately viewed not as a relic but as a harbinger.

God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
by Cullen Murphy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
From medieval France to sixteenth-century Spain and Portugal and their colonies half a world away to 1940s Germany to modern-day Guantanamo Bay, Murphy follows the “inquisitorial impulse” around the world and through the centuries. His research takes him to the Vatican archives, rural France, Berlin, and the National Archives, among other places, as he outlines the events and procedures of the Medieval Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, and the Spanish Inquisition, as well as what he terms the current “Secular Inquisition”. His circuitous route through history sharply illustrates how the spirit of the Inquisition remains alive and well.

 

Review:
Murphy covers a lot of ground (metaphorically and literally), giving a tantalizing overview of the topic. This is not a deep scholarly work, which is a point in its favor. Murphy has an eye for descriptive details, and he distills what is clearly an enormous amount of research into a work that appeals to the non-expert in the topic. He moves around in time and place, introducing important people and events early on and reminding the reader about them later, drawing connections across centuries. The Inquisition, by its very nature, is not a pleasant topic, but Murphy creates a narrative that is enjoyable to read even as it leaves the reader with some disturbing ideas to ponder after closing the book.

 

Final Word:
A compelling look at a part of history that remains all too much with us in the present.

 

Source:
E-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

 

 

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Book Review: Starters by Lissa Price

Hearing his words made it all too real. Creepy old Enders with arthritic limbs taking over this teen’s body for week, living inside his skin.

Starters (Starters, #1)
Starters by Lissa Price
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
A year ago, Callie lived the life of an average teenager in Southern California. She lived in a house with her mom and her dad and her little brother, Tyler. Then the war that had been raging so far away hit home with the detonation of a Spore missile and the subsequent disease that killed almost everyone between the ages of 20 and 60. Without older living relatives to claim them, Callie and Tyler have been on the run from the authorities, squatting in abandoned buildings and fighting off dangerous Renegades. They are running out of resources, and Tyler is ill. But in Beverly Hills, there is a place called Prime Destinations, a company that will pay handsomely if she will do the nearly unthinkable: allow them to use her body as a rental for elderly “Enders” to experience being young again. Desperate, Callie signs on, only to learn that both Prime Destinations and her final renter have plans worse than she could have imagined.

 

Review:
A post-apocalyptic Los Angeles is the setting for this entry in the popular Dystopian YA genre. In Price’s version of the near future, the “sandwich generation” is gone, leaving a world populated by elderly “Enders” who now live well in their second century and under-20 “Starters”, who have no rights at all until they come of age at 19. The lucky ones are those with grandparents, great-grandparents, and other senior relatives to “claim” them. The unlucky ones are on the run, scrounging for food, hiding out in filthy squats, hoping to run out the clock to age 19 before getting picked up by the authorities and locked up in an Institution. Prime Destinations is strongly reminiscent of the eponymous location in Joss Whedon’s short-lived series Dollhouse, with the twist that the clients are actually inhabiting the “dolls”.

The interesting premise is undermined by some shaky world-building. With people living to 200, it seems like there would be more living grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles, and other relatives available to claim kids like Callie and her brother. What happened to their own grandparents (and great-grandparents) is never explained. The only Enders and Claimed Minors Callie encounters are wealthy; what happened to the middle- and working-class kids who had living relatives to claim them? Finally, while it is clear that the post-war world is a huge change for Callie (and everyone else), life before the war was clearly different from what we know, but it is unclear how things got from here to there.

The characters populating this world are also problematic. Callie’s fierce determination makes her an appealing heroine. Unfortunately, she is the only character who really gets any development. After Tyler and Callie’s friend Michael are introduced early on, they spend most of the novel “off-screen”, as Callie is separated from them. Even secondary characters who are more involved in the plot are left static. Complicating this, of course, is the whole body-switching issue; after first meeting someone, he may be quite literally a different person the next time he appears! There are several supplementary stories slated to appear in addition to the sequel that look like they might explore the characters a bit more.

Despite the flaws, this is a promising debut novel. The plot is compelling enough to distract from the sorts of questions that make it impossible to suspend disbelief (at least, until putting it down), and a final twist keeps the reader on the hook for the forthcoming sequel. This is an enjoyable, entertaining read. Just try not to pick at the details.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

 

Final Word:
An intriguing premise and compelling plot compensate for some shaky world-building in this promising Dystopian YA debut.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

 

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Book Review: Dangerous Waters by Gregory Mone

The whole city had come out to watch Titanic and the strong, heavy smell of coal filled the air. After a few breaths, gritty black dust coated his tongue. The taste of progress, as Mr. Joyce called it.

 

Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic by Gregory Mone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
April, 1912: The RMS Titanic sets sail for her maiden voyage with more than 2000 people aboard. Among the passengers on the “Queen of the Sea”: a wealthy book collector with a rare and valuable volume, a cunning thief desperate for money, and a young steward looking for a chance to be a part of something great.

After his father died, Patrick Waters left school and went to work in a Belfast pub. His widowed mother is determined to make him a practical working man like his older brother, not a dreamer like his late father. At age twelve, Patrick hopes to associate himself with greatness. His brother is about to embark on his ninth trip across the Atlantic, this time shoveling coal into the boilers of Titanic. When an unexpected opportunity on the ship arises, he wastes no time getting himself aboard. To his surprise, instead of shoveling coal, he is assigned to wait on Harry Elkins Widener, a book-lover whose latest acquisition might be worth much more than either of them can imagine. There is someone on board who thinks he does know, though, and he will stop at nothing to get the book for himself. There is danger at every turn as the ship itself heads for disaster.

 

Review:
With the centennial of the shipwreck approaching in April of 2012, new Titanic books are hitting the shelves. It is one of those topics (like Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or dinosaurs) that kids ask about again and again, endlessly fascinated. In this fictional take for middle grade readers, Mone skillfully blends real-life historical figures with his own characters. An Author’s Note at the end explains that Harry Widener really was a book collector who perished on board the ship, while young Patrick and the other main characters are the inventions of the author.

From the taste of coal dust to the color of a partially-cleaned spittoon, the narrative is packed with rich sensory details, bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the scenes to life. Mone uses playful language in his descriptions; in the first chapter, he says of the thief Berryman that “the local baker refused to loan him so much as a roll.” Quick-paced action keeps the pages turning as events come to their inevitable conclusion.

In addition to the drama of the collision, Mone intrigues readers with a mystery that is just a little bit reminiscent of Dan Brown. The perspective shifts between sweet Patrick, who can’t help but follow his own sharp eyes and ears, and the thieves after something they think will bring them untold riches, if only they can decipher a coded message within. The reader, of course, knows more than any single character, and hints are offered about the secret message before its meaning is finally revealed.

On shelves March 13, 2012 (just in time for the anniversary).

 

Final Word:
An original mystery offers a fresh take on a popular historical event for middle grade readers.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley provided by the publisher by request

 

 

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Book Review: Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard

I’m wearing quick-dry khaki capris, a crispy Windbreaker, and hiking shoes that make my feet feel like Clydesdale hooves. They’re brand-new. Like my too-short haircut and my purple suitcase, along with everything in it.

 

Wanderlove
Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
After graduation, Bria Sandoval was supposed to go to Europe with her boyfriend before they started Art School together. Instead, they broke up shortly after admissions notices came out. Her two best friends were going to fill in as travel companions, but then they backed out. Getting handed a simple pamphlet seems like a sign, and its question, “Are you a Global Vagabond?” inspires her. She longs to be like the beautiful people posing gracefully atop a Mayan ruin in the pamphlet photograph, but when she arrives in Guatemala, she immediately feels out of place in her tour group full of middle-aged vacationers. An unexpected invitation to join experienced backpacker Rowan and his sister Starling offers Bria the chance to finally break the rules. Getting even more lost might be just what Bria needs to find herself again.

 

Review:
After reading Hubbard’s debut, Like Mandarin, as part of the Debut Author Challenge last year, I said, “I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her next book,” and I am so glad I did. Wanderlove is a gorgeous read, lush with detail and Hubbard’s graceful style.

With the first-person narration, Hubbard walks a delicate line. Bria has to reveal things about herself before truly recognizing them. The magic lies in the way her introspection feels natural; she is a lonely young woman in a place where she literally doesn’t speak the language. She has to talk things out with herself, and by extension, the reader. Bria’s metaphorical distance from her friends and parents and her figurative abandoned map of her future are made manifest as she travels thousands of miles away from home with barely a glance at the itinerary.

When the reader meets Bria, she is lost and confused. Art – drawing, in particular – was her constant, her comfort. “I used to be an artist,” she thinks on the plane from L.A.X., where she can’t even bring herself to draw in the sketchbook she opens. Her self-image has crumbled. When the girl in the seat next to her asks about her travel plans, Bria lies, wanting to sound cooler and worldlier than she is. She is trying so hard to become a new person, and it all comes crashing down by the last line of the first chapter: “So much for reinvention.”

Hubbard has a gift for representing sensory details, especially the visual element, in her prose. Bria’s artist view of the world leads her to pick out telling details. Her first glance at her Global Vagabonds tour group consists of “mustaches, baseball caps, doughy calves marbled with varicose veins.” It is not a flattering depiction, by any means, but it reveals more about Bria than it does about the tourists. Later, Bria describes an incident with Marcy, the tour director: “While the rest of my tour group browsed market stalls, I bought a chicken tamale from a street vendor. Before I could unwrap it from its banana leaf, Marcy velociraptored up behind me and snatched it from my hand.” The use of “velociraptor” as a verb is just perfect, a striking image that captures the feeling of that moment. When asked if she has ever been in love, Bria’s memory of her now-ex-boyfriend “bubble up, like acid reflux.” That phrase captures the pain she feels, the feelings she insists on hiding: “I force them down with a shrug.”

Bria grows and changes at a reasonable pace over the course of the novel, while secondary characters are simultaneously developed. Rowan, the handsome backpacker boy with the shadowy past and seemingly too-good-to-be-true Starling are no mere foils for the narrator. They are complicated individuals in their own right, and closing the novel feels all too much like losing what might have been good friends.

Just as the pull of “wanderlove” is more than the “itchy feet” of wanderlust, Wanderlove is more than just a road trip story. It is a richly detailed journey both within and without, ultimately bursting with an inspiring love for life well-lived. Whether tucked into a backpack to read on bumpy backroads buses or kept and enjoyed on a comfortable couch, this is a companion to be cherished.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

 

Final Word:
A richly detailed and beautifully rendered journey across Central America and within the heart of a girl who needs to get lost before she can find herself. Caution: may inspire re-examination of your own map of the future.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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Book Review: Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart

The only kind of music I remember Mom and Dad making together was loud fighting.

Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen
Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
Until her dad moved to California two years ago, Olivia Bean watched Jeopardy! with him every night. Now she watches it on her own, unless Mom’s annoying boyfriend insists on watching, too. Olivia dreams of competing on Kids’ Week; besides the money she could win, the trip to the taping would give her a chance to visit her dad. But even if she makes it, will her dad manage to make time to spend with her?

Review:
This sweet middle-grade contemporary takes on Parents Behaving Badly. Olivia adores her father, but it’s clear from the first chapter that he is not quite the man she wants him to be. She remembers how, when she was learning violin in the fourth grade, he would ask her to play “Over the Mountains and Far Away”, then says, “It took a bit of research to learn that Dad was teasing about my screechy playing. There is no song called ‘Over the Mountains and Far Away’; it was Dad’s fun way of asking me to practice somewhere else.” And when her father tells her that she “wouldn’t do well” on Jeopardy! because it would have “a ton of geography questions, and geography just isn’t your thing”, her reaction, even years later, is, “Dad was right, of course.” She follows her statement, “I am lousy at geography”, with her hope that she can overcome her weakness with lots of studying, but it remains painfully clear that she has taken her father’s careless comment to heart. Gephart slyly reveals the real character of Olivia’s father through these small observations over the course of the novel, and Olivia takes a long time getting to the realization that readers will have probably already reached.

Olivia gets a little help along the way to that conclusion from Neil, her mom’s live-in boyfriend, who provides an excellent foil for the absentee father. Gephart does an admirable job creating a realistic blended family dealing with familiar problems. The story is peppered with trivia factoids (including tidbits about Jeopardy! itself), a treat for readers who share Olivia’s passion. A light romantic subplot also helps leaven the mood. The only real weaknesses lie in some clunky narration and in the pacing, which occasionally drags before picking up again. Olivia repeatedly refers to an “unfortunate hula hoop incident”; by the time the details are revealed near the end of the novel, it seems like a let-down.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

Final Word:
Despite some clunky narrative and pacing, the realistic characters and situations make this sweet contemporary novel a good choice for grades 4-7.

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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Book Review: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

 

Wonder
Wonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
August Pullman has had 27 surgeries in his 10 years of life. Because of the hospitalizations and other health problems, his mother has homeschooled him. But now his parents have enrolled him in the fifth grade at Beecher Prep. He knows he is just an ordinary kid, but he also knows that his face is different, and it is the first thing anyone will notice. Will he be able to get his new classmates to look beyond his appearance and get to know the ordinary kid inside? Or is he, just maybe, more extraordinary than he thinks?

 

Review:
Auggie’s first year of mainstream school is described in short chapters from several perspectives. Besides Auggie himself, his sister and four other characters get a chance to tell their sides of the story. Palacio does a fantastic job giving each character his (or her) own distinctive voice. The multiple perspectives also allow the reader to know more than any one character does, even (especially) Auggie. As Mr. Tushman points out, “there are almost always more than two sides to every story.” The characters are complicated. No one, not even Auggie, is all good or all bad. The situations are realistic, from the bullying in the halls of Beecher Prep to the small family dramas in the Pullman home. This is an amazing story told with empathy and humor. Kids and adults alike will love this stellar debut. Highly recommended.

On shelves February 14, 2012.

 

Final Word:
A beautifully written, heart-breaking but uplifting tale of one (extra-)ordinary kid.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

 

 

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