Lesser known gods set Wildefire ablaze

Wildefire by Karsten Knight; published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2011; 400 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  The book was published in July, 2011.

Ashline Wilde, and her sister Eve, are Polynesian sisters who were adopted by a Jewish couple.  As if that combination weren’t enough to attract all the taunts and bullies of high school, Eve has run away.  Her return ends in the cruel death of Ash’s rival; a death not only cruel but suspicious.  It seems that Eve can control the weather and sent a lightning bolt to fry the poor girl.  Fast-forward a few months, and Ash has transferred to a remote school on the California coast, across the country from her New York home and family.  If Eve’s abilities were strange, things are about to rocket off the strange-o-meter for Ash.  Apparently, a girl with an oracle’s gift has called disparate teens from all over the world to the school to fulfill a quest given her by the mysterious Jack.  Worlds, gods and teens collide and it’s not going to end well.

I adore that the characters represent gods of different cultures.  Obviously, children and teens are interested in the Greek gods (hello, Percy Jackson, and thank you for coming to the party).  But there is a rich mythical history around the world that we are not often introduced to.  Knight introduces us to Polynesian, Norse and Haitian myths, just to name a few.  Teens who are familiar with the Trickster stories from picture books of their childhood will understand that Ash’s quest is going to be interesting, to say the least.

Aside from the mythology, the sibling rivalry and typical teen struggles add interesting subplots.  However, I had a hard time overlooking an issue with the dialog.  The female characters, particularly Ash and Jackie, don’t ring true to me.  I felt like I was listening to guys trying to win a bet by talking the way they think tough girls talk.  Once I got drawn into the story, I could overlook it.  And, oh, the heart palpitations start midway through the book without many chances to catch a breath as identities, abilities and conflicts start piling up without letting up.  Just when I thought I could relax, the shock of the end caught me completely off-guard.  Now I await the sequel, impatiently!

By the way, the book is divided into sections that reflect the timeline of the story, which is also reflected in the chapter titles.  I think this was a great way to help readers keep the passage of time straight as even flashbacks are noted as such.  Thanks for helping the story progress without being distracting! 🙂

4P     3Q     Grade Level: 8-12

Cover Art: The significance of the smoking calla lily is revealed in the book.  Without knowing the story, the black cover, the glowing flower with tendrils of smoke curling skyward, all appeal to fans of genre fiction.  The play on Ash’s name and ability are aptly referenced in the title and the font seems to reflect the genre as well.

From the Reading List: The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

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SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor; published by Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2011; 420 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: September 27, 2011.

Karou, age 17, is an art student in Prague.  Her peacock blue hair is not the only reason she stands out in the other-worldly European city.  She has more than 90 sketchbooks full of pictures of mythical creatures, all with names and back stories, that exist in another world.  Her imaginary world, right?  No.  Karou lives a double life.  Through unmarked gateways around the world, Karou can slip between our world and the world of her chimaera family.  In that world, chimaera and angels fight a war based on a legacy of hatred for and fear of one another.  When Akiva, an angel, crosses paths with Karou, her double life is over.  What she knows of good and evil, happiness and sorrow, love and loss, will be tested.

My summary of Daughter of Smoke and Bone cannot do justice to this remarkable work.  You can watch the trailer (actually, there are several listed after you watch this one) for different descriptions of the book.

The story line goes far beyond a fantasy of angels and demons, of good and bad.  Taylor’s depth of story, character, setting and emotion is woven in meticulously chosen words that resonate the beauty and mystery of Prague and Eretz.  For me, the exploration of the foundation of legends was most poignant.  Angels are good, pure; right?  At least that what legend tells us.  But like history, we have to consider from whose perspective it is written; is there an agenda to the storytelling?  Telling the story of Karou and Akiva means uncovering the truth behind the legends and who benefits from fueling the hatred.

I still find this review lacking.  I do not have the words to express how much I enjoyed this book.  Perhaps I can better express myself through two examples.  First, this is the first book in a trilogy.  Typically, the first book (or movie, for that matter), expends itself in establishing characters, setting, and a problem for resolution.  I usually find the first installment interesting but not remarkable.  Exceptions to this have included The Hunger Games, Shiver, and Prophecy of the Sisters.  All told a story that could stand alone.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone stands tall among these books.

Second, as I closed the last page, my only thought was that this should be in the running for the Michael L. Printz award.  I don’t make such statements often (only once before, if I’m remembering correctly…).

The biggest problem with reading an ARC of a book in a series is that the time to wait between installments is interminable! 😥  I think many young adults will agree with me.

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-12

Cover art: The black-and-white cover is eye-catching because of the peacock blue feathered mask.  The interesting mix of distressed fonts also adds to the allure of the book.

From Reading Lists: ARC (advance reading copy) and The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

 

SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: Spoiled

Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan; published by Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2011; 360 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: June 1, 2011.

Brooke Berlin has it all.  Her father is the much-adored actor/writer/producer Brick Berlin so she pretty much has everything she wants or she knows how to get it.  “Having it all” includes good friends like Arugula and enemies like Shelby Kendall (heir to Trip Kendall’s gossip rag, Hey!).  “Having it all” did not mean her father’s full attention, a mother that stuck around, or siblings.  Molly Dix, on the other hand, had good friends too, and a mother that cared, although she had no idea who her father was.  That is, until her mother died.  At that point, Molly and Brooke discover that they have something in common: their father Brick Berlin.  Brick foists his 16 year old daughters upon each other and somehow expects them to bond immediately.  Brooke has other plans.  Brooke has no intention of letting an intruder spoil her life.  This is war!

As I read the first chapter, I was so disgusted by Brooke that I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the book.  But then I “met” Molly, Brooke’s antithesis.  Hmm, this could be interesting–and it certainly was.  And it was entertaining….  And the character development was good….  And the glimpse into lifestyles of the rich and famous was fun….  And as I closed the back cover, I wanted the sequel.  This is the perfect beach read!  The June release is perfect since this is a great summer vacation book to pair with Joanna Philbin’s The Daughters series, for example.

Often books that are team-written suffer from disparate styles.  I can tell what parts were written by each author and sometimes those differences are even noticeable within single sentences.  In the case of this writing team, they seem to have mastered the art of tag-team creation writing the fabulously funny Go Fug Yourself blog.  Their razor sharp wit and eye for the richly and fabulously ridiculous translates beautifully into the creatures in this book.  For young adult wannabes, and those who are just voyeurs, this is a must-read this summer.  And seriously, when is the sequel due out?

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 8-11

Cover Art: The ARC I received has the title spelled out in makeup.  Priceless.  It totally defines the superficiality that the characters own or reject.  Undoubtedly, the cover will help sell this book.

From Reading List: Survival in Love War or Sports; ARC (advance reading copy)

SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: The Midnight Palace

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves; published by Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2011; 298 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: May 31, 2011.

It’s the 1930s, Calcutta.  This exotic locale is home to a psychological thriller that simmers beneath the surface then boils over in  scalding, terrifying bursts throughout the book.  Seven orphans (Isobel, Roshan, Siraj, Michael, Seth, Ben and Ian) became founding members of the Chowbar Society and met nightly at the Midnight Palace, a deserted former-mansion near St. Patrick’s orphange.  Seven children have pledged to see each other through their years in an orphanages as a surrogate family.  Although all have unique personalities and sometimes unsettling quirks, they stick together.  They share stories to get through boredom and sadness.  They solve mysteries, as when a fire nearly kills the orphanage director, Tom Carter.  When Sheere becomes the unofficial eighth member of the Chowbar Society, all hell seems to break loose.  A terrifying ghost train with a fiery specter begins to lurk near the children.  One or more lives are at stake as the inseparable team search for answers.  Will the Chowbar Society disband with seven or eight members?  Will any of them survive to see the Midnight Palace again?

The book is bookended with commentary by Ian, one of the characters.  It is through his adult eyes that we learn the story of the fiery apparition and the interconnections between some of the children.  Sometimes the adult Ian interjects with insight or commentary that helps clarify the storyline without clouding the story telling.  It’s an interesting plot device that works well.

As was the case in The Prince of Mist, Zafon has created a heart-pounding psychological thriller.  The two books share a common depth of description that pulls readers into the atmospheric ghost stories.  At several points, I found I had to set The Midnight Palace down to literally catch my breath because my pulse was racing.  The description of the terrifying presence is scary enough, but the moments when he jumps out at the protagonists was Hitchcockian jump-out-of-your-seat thrills.  Comparisons between the two books are inevitable.  Although similar, I think The Midnight Palace has a deeper story line and better developed characters.  Where the evil presence in The Prince of Mist sought a single soul to make restitution, the ghost in The Midnight Palace will stop at nothing in his quest for revenge against all wrongs done to him.

I think reluctant readers will be interested in this title.  No, it is not a rollicking adventure or a smoldering romance, but the storytelling and rich tapestry of words will capture the imagination of readers.  At less than 300 pages and with a fairly large typeface, The Midnight Palace is not an imposing book to crack open.  But once inside Ian’s memoir, I think teens, young adults and some adults will find it hard to put down until the back cover closes.  With summer reading approaching, this is a must-read for camp, vacation, or just at night in the dark with just a flashlight.

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 8-12+

Cover art: the fiery track, the apparition with its head down and the exotic palaces of Calcutta summarize the story in a fairly graphic portrayal of the storyline, without giving a lot away.  I don’t think it works very well as it doesn’t cry “ghost story” to me, and that would be a huge selling point to readers of the genre; especially for Zafon fans.  I definitely do not like it as well as the cover of The Prince of Mist.

From Reading List: On the Edge of Your Seat (Mystery, Suspense, Thriller), ARC (advance reading copy)

Time to meet The Ghoul Next Door

Monster High: The Ghoul Next Door (Monster High series, Book 2) by Lisi Harrison; published by Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2011; 179 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  The book was released on April 5, 2011.

Barely a week has passed since Brett tore off the Bride of Frankenstein’s (or Frankie Stein’s) head at the school dance.  But a lifetime of change has begun to sweep through Salem, Oregon.  The Normies and RADs at Merston High School are about to co-mingle and life may never be the same.  RAD clique leader Cleo is about to have her dream come true; she will be featured in a Teen Vogue spread on her Egyptian couture jewelry line.  Like any obliging queen, she has included her three closest friends.  Her dream may turn into a nightmare when the cross-over couples, Brett and Frankie with Melody and Jackson, scheme to unmask the RADs and try to give peace a chance on the day of her shoot! Now the RADs face a crisis within their ranks while trying to co-exist with the Normies.  Will NUDI triumph or will HUNT?  And who will discover they aren’t Normies after all?  The saga continues from the first Monster High book and will overflow into book 3. You can read an excerpt:

I read an e-book pre-release copy of the book and was a little disappointed to find a hot link to a shopping site within its electronic pages.  But, this is a series that relies heavily on corporate sponsorship and cross-marketing.  Harrison takes a couple of jabs at the marketing aspect of the book with a wink and a smile.  That bothered me a bit in the first book in the series, but I’m a little more likely to look the other way this time.  Let me explain why.  The Ghoul Next Door is not a stand-alone title; reading the first book in the series is necessary to fall in step with the story immediately.  That’s a good thing.  This book is a natural for reluctant readers (girls, primarily) and getting reluctant readers hooked on a series is a wonderful way to turn them into voracious readers.  I would add this to a list of quick picks for reluctant readers (sorry for borrowing the phrase, YALSA).  Speaking of YALSA, Harrison’s series is listed on their “Monster Lit” wiki. I’d use the Monster Lit list to refer readers to similar titles as well as recommending another Poppy series, Joanna Philbin’s The Daughters.

As for the content, I enjoyed this story more than the first.  I understand that the character development was the purpose of the series introduction.  In The Ghoul Next Door, the high school experience is more fully developed and explored.  Although  most of the protagonists are RADs (monsters), they embody the clichéd cliques in every high school so readers will quickly relate to them.  For middle school and early high school students, this series is a natural.  You can find more information about the book and the author at the publisher’s website: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/teens_books_9780316099110.htm.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 6-9

Cover Art: The series theme carries on: A leather cover with a skull appliqué.  This time, the skull has an asp on its head and fans of the series will recognize that Cleo must be at the center of the storyline.

From Reading List: ARC (advance reading copy)

SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: I’ll Be There

I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan; published by Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2011; 393 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: May 17, 2011.

Synchronicity: noun /ˌsiNGkrəˈnisitē/  1. The simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. (Google dictionary definition)

Emily Bell has a terrible singing voice; why does her father insist she sing the Jackson 5’s hit single “I’ll Be There” as a solo at church?  Sam Border has spent his life as a vagrant at the mercy of his father’s mental illness, so why does he go to church on Sundays?  As she sings her terrifying solo, Emily finds an emotional connection to the strange young man in the last row.  Their paths are destined to cross again, and in a big way.  As Sam and Emily grow close, his secret life is harder to hide.  First, he introduces his little brother, Riddle, to the Bell family.  Then Bobby Ellis, a rival for Emily’s affections, discovers where the Borders live.  Sam’s father’s voice-inside-his-head warns him to pack up and leave with the boys.  With the help of a cast of strangers who embody synchronicity, Sam and Riddle’s lives are about to change forever.

I’m afraid my description of the story does not do it justice.  Some books stay with me long after I’ve closed the back cover; this is one of them.  Sloan’s sense of humor and light touch belie a very stirring story of loss and belonging.  With a gentle touch, she introduces secondary characters who change the course of Sam and Riddle’s lives by choosing to do the right thing.  Even Sam’s extraordinary musical gift is tied to his survival.  The author’s screen-writing background is evident in her character and plot development, but it’s her skill at using a light touch to portray heavy themes that wins my admiration.

Think you know what “family” is?  I’ll Be There may just challenge your preconceptions.  Fans of realistic fiction, and anyone that enjoys a well-crafted story, will devour this book.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-12

Cover Art: I reviewed a special advance reading copy that arrived in a plain brown wrapper.  The art from the publisher’s website is unimpressive.  The colors are attractive but the image does nothing to pique interest or depict the story.  Maybe I’m thinking in terms of movie posters (given the author’s credentials) because I expected so much more from the cover art.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction), ARC (advance reading copy)

SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: Huntress by Malinda Lo

Huntress by Malinda Lo; published by Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2o11; 371 pages.

Grayness has settled across everything from the sky to the earth.  Strange creatures of myth have appeared on the fringes of the Wood.  Perhaps it was no surprise when the King and his entourage visited the Academy where sages are trained, since so many unusual things were already happening in the human world.  The King came with an invitation from the Fairy Queen to meet in her castle.  Perhaps meeting with the fairies could shed light on the strange events in the human realm; but the King and his advisors do not want to risk his safety.  His son (Con), two students from the Academy (Kaede and Taisin), and three guards will make the journey.  Will they survive the trek and reach the Fairy Queen in time to save the earth?  And who will discover she is the Huntress?

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: April 5, 2011.

Huntress is the prequel to Lo’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award finalist Ash, but the story takes place generations earlier.  I have not read the first book; in fact, I was stunned to find my local libraries do not have Ash in their collections!  However, Huntress stands alone.  Please let me know if I’ve missed anything by not reading the first book!

OK, so Huntress offers a little bit for almost every taste.  A quest!  An adventure!  Mythology a la I Ching!  Romance!  At first I thought the mix of so many genres would dilute the impact of each, but that is certainly not the case.  The flow of the quest and the adventures associated with it was as exciting as any adventure story gets.  Battles ending in tragic losses were profoundly written which helped introduce the mythology of the Xi and other fay.  Introducing concepts from the I Ching, including quotes from the Book of Changes and use of the Oracle Bones, made the existence of a fay world seem plausible.

But for me, the exploration of romance was the most interesting aspect of the book.  In Huntress, the heterosexual relationship between the heir to the throne and one of the King’s guard is regarded as taboo; the love between the Academy students, two females, was regarded casually.  Hooray for writing a book that doesn’t make an overt statement about sexual preference!

Overall, I loved Lo’s descriptions of the world around her characters.  The greyness, the magic, the fairies were all described so vividly that I could step into the world at any given moment.  Sometimes I was confused by the point of view; the narration is third person omniscient and at times I had to reread passages after I discovered the point of view had shifted.  But that was a minor inconvenience given the depth of descriptions and the pace of the adventure.

Teens who prefer a variety of genres should be drawn to this book.  The Pronunciation Guide at the beginning of the book helped me get over the strangeness of the names and I felt more comfortable reading; I think young adult readers will agree.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 9-12

Cover Art: Love, love, love the ARC cover!  The obscured face of the girl holding the Huntress’ bow adds to the mystery of the storyline.  The snowy background sets the atmosphere of the story–grayness in an increasingly cold world.  The subtle Asian features also hint at the I Ching influence of the story.  I think the cover does a remarkable job of inferring the various genres (other than romance!) of the book.

From Reading Lists: Sexual Identity, The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

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