Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger

Book: Darth Paper Strikes Back
Author: Tom Angleberger
Published: 2011
Source: Local Library

The Force requires balance. For every good-hearted (if slightly weird) Dwight, there's got to be a nasty and cyncial Harvey. For every Origami Yoda, there must be a  . . . Darth Paper.

It seems like Harvey/Darth Paper's evil schemes will get Origami Yoda/Dwight kicked out of school for good. Tommy assembles another case file to present to the school board, hoping to convince them that Dwight's not a "disruptive influence," but instead someone who has changed the lives of his classmates for the better. It's not looking good . . . but Tommy should remember that a 900-year-old paper alien is always going to have some tricks up his sleeve.

I vastly enjoyed the first book, which I read for 48HBC last year, so this one went right on my stack for this year. It follows the same format in general, short stories about middle-school angst, and just as with the first one, Angleberger hits the nail on the head. The great charm of these novels is that they're not about Star Wars at all, but about the thorny social interactions of tweens, wobbling on the threshold of teenagerhood.

There is a pretty lengthy segment at the end that deals with Harvey, who is slightly more complex than you'd think, and Dwight's eventual fate, but it's still a very quick and entertaining read. You shouldn't have any trouble selling this one based on the popularity of the first.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Book: Code Name Verity
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Published: 2012
Source: Review Copy from publisher via NetGalley

German-occupied France, 1943. A young British woman has been captured by the Gestapo, and after three weeks of torture finally agrees to give up everything she knows. But she does this by relating the story of her friendship with another young British woman, the woman who flew her into France, crash-landed their plane, and apparently died in the wreckage.

Polar opposites on the outside: Julie educated at boarding schools, born into the nobility, reading at Oxford before the war, versed in literature of various languages, can lie her head off while looking you in the eye, versus Maddie, working-class mechanic who fell in love with airplanes when she saw the engine taken apart, who can’t speak a word of anything except English and who is frankly rubbish at anything smacking of subterfuge. But under the skin they’re the same--brave, tough, funny young women, doing their jobs in wartime for the love of their country, family, and friends.

Like Scheherazade, the captured woman spins out her story knowing that when she finishes, her death lies at the end. But how much of her story is true, and how much has this trained British interrogator and spy made up on the spot?

At its heart, this book is a love story. Not in the romantic sense of the word, but in the pure and powerful connection between two friends that goes deeper than mere hearts and flowers and into a place where one friend can ask anything--literally, anything--of the other. It's also a shining example of how a really good unreliable narrator can suck you in. It's very hard to talk about this book without giving away spoilers, but I'll say this: when you realize just how thoroughly the young spy has suckered you, she is so real and vital a girl that you understand why and you're actually sort of proud of how she did it.

I'm writing about this book relatively calmly, but that's because I took a few weeks. When reading, I was completely caught up in it. At one point, I laid it down, buried my face in my pillow, and sobbed uncontrollably, and for the better part of a day I would still get teary-eyed thinking about it. Maddie and Julie became that real to me. This book tore out my heart, stomped on it, then sat down next to me and offered me a cigarette and a very strong drink.

Harrowing and powerful, this is a book you won't forget in a hurry.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Book: Seraphina
Author: Rachel Hartman
Published: July 10, 2012
Source: review copy from publisher, via NetGalley

A treaty may have ended the devastating human/dragon wars, but it didn't end the enmity between the two species, just forced it beneath the surface. As the fiftieth anniversary of the treaty's signing approaches, a royal prince is murdered, apparently by dragons, and a peace that was fragile to begin with threatens to shatter under the strain.

In the middle of all this is Seraphina Dombegh, the court composer's assistant. She struggles to keep her head down and avoid notice, because anonymity is her only safeguard against the revelation of a devastating secret: she is half-dragon, half-human, and an abomination to both species. Against her best efforts, she keeps finding herself in position and places where she gets noticed, particularly by the good-hearted Princess Glisselda, heir to the throne, and her bastard cousin, Prince Lucian Kiggs, the sharp-eyed and quick-witted head of royal security.

Balanced precariously between her logical dragon side and her emotional human one, Seraphina soon comes to realize that she alone may be the key to keeping this peace . . . or to starting a war.

I read this one way back, and I'm so excited that it's finally being released so I can squeal, "OMYGAW THIS BOOK!" at all my blog readers. I'm not entirely sure I can talk coherently about this book, because there's so much I want to gush over. Seraphina, first. So you know how the Forever Young Adult girls award their BFF charms? I will give all my BFF charms to Seraphina. All of them. Awkward and unsteady in her own skin, yet endlessly practical. Quick on her feet, quick with her wits. I want this girl on my side.

It's quite a trick to write such a fascinating and complex person, much less a second. Lucky for us, Hartman's managed it with Lucian Kiggs. A royal bastard, he's caught inescapably between two worlds, just as Seraphina is, so he has special insight into what makes her tick. While he's occasionally not sure what to make of her, he'll back her up in a split second. Faster. Is there romaaaance? In a bumpy, sneaky, when-did-that-happen kind of way that completely works for these characters, and I'll take that over sparkly-eyed swoons of destiny any day.

I like this one for twisty-turny political fantasy fans, the ones who've finished all of Megan Whalen Turner's books and are begging for more. Beware, though. Give this to them and they will be back within a day, begging for more of Seraphina.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Book Review: One Moment by Kristina McBride

Book: One Moment
Author: Kristina McBride
Published: June 26, 2012
Source: review copy from publisher via NetGalley

It happened in a moment. Maggie was finally taking the dare to jump off the cliffs into the swimming hole, helped (prodded?) by her beloved boyfriend Joey. She was all ready to do it. But then . . . only Joey took the jump, leaving Maggie alone on the cliff. And Joey jumped wrong, bashed his head on the way down, and died before the paramedics arrived.

Maggie is immediately sucked into a quagmire of grief. The close circle of friends that she and Joey shared are barely able to help her, lost as they are in their own sorrow. But as Maggie begins to surface, questions arise with her. Why didn't she jump? Why did Joey? Why does it seem as if he had secrets that so many of their friends knew and she didn't? And why can't she remember the last few moments before Joey took his fatal dive?

Basically, this is a grief novel. It doesn't break any particular ground, though I do like the realism of Maggie's grief, the waves and troughs of it, as well as the slow implosion of the friend group that has suddenly had its center ripped out. I also liked the amnesia aspect, when Maggie's broken heart protected her from the full onslaught of the truth until she was ready to handle it. We all know what really happened before Maggie does, but she needs to come to it gradually. No argument there.

Why I'm writing this review . . . Go away, spoilerphobic. There are spoilers here.

I'm starting to realize that endings are actually pretty darn important. Well, I always knew they were important, but the capacity of an ending that doesn't quite work to ruin the whole book is mind-boggling. I was really liking this book, until the end. Because what happens is that Maggie discovers the Big Secret: that Joey had been cheating on her for a long time with their friend Shannon, and their other friend Adam knew all about it. This is not itself a horrible thing, as far as the story is concerned. Clearly as far as Maggie is concerned, it's pretty bad. It's also unfortunate for this group of friends, which falls apart under the strain (and gets unrealistically patched up at the end), but what follows is what drove me nuts.

One of the themes of the book is that Joey wasn't perfect. He was a fun, engaging kid, but he was so far from perfect. And yet Maggie loved him. A lot of people loved him. To me, that was a good place to leave it. That was a great place to leave it. Nobody's perfect, after all, and part of your first love story is coming to terms with that, in one way or the other.

Except it didn't end there. At the end (the real one) we find out that everything that was ever good about Maggie's relationship with Joey was false. Everything. He stole it all from somebody else. Specifically, from Adam, who has had feelings for Maggie for a long time.

So the end of this book is not about coming to terms with Joey's flaws. It's not about Maggie understanding that she had loved an imperfect boy, one who made mistakes but died before he could grow up and make them right. It's not about learning to forgive somebody who's not around anymore.

Instead, Maggie simply writes Joey off as unworthy and transfers all her love to Adam. This is the boy who kept secrets in order to spare her (which anybody knows makes it much worse in the end), who constantly pushed her away when she tried to reach out to him, who chickened out on ever expressing his feelings, and yet he is held up as the worthy one. I think he even used the words "I deserve you," which set off my ranty feminist a-girl-is-not-a-prize rage.

The worst part is how completely unredeemable Joey becomes. By the end, he has no positive qualities whatsoever. You can't figure out why Maggie loved him, why Shannon (the Other Girl) loved him, or even why Adam cared enough to keep a promise to him. You finish the book wondering why you spent all that time grieving with Maggie when he so profoundly wasn't worth it.

I can recommend maybe 3/4 of this book. You'll have to tell me what you think of the end.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Reading Roundup: June 2012

By the Numbers
Teen: 18
Tween: 9
Children: 7

Review Copies: 9
Purchased: 2
Library: 20

Teen: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
I . . . I can't even talk coherently about this book, weeks after reading. Once I can, there will be a blog post, I promise, because this is the kind of book you need to think about and talk about.
Tween: Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel
From my review, posted yesterday: "Wild and weird, rich and textured, this is a freaking amazing book. And I want more."
Children: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
This book sees the younger Penderwicks developing much more distinct personalities, as they deal with drama during their summer trip. A worthy addition to a series that stands out for its classic feel.

Because I Want To Awards
Another Sticky One: Leverage by Joshua Cohen
This story of two very different high school athletes who band together in the face of vicious bullying is another one I won't soon forget.
I Feel Bad for the Author: Burn Mark by Laura Powell
Because while this is an intriguing setting with a fascinating couple of characters who need to make major moral choices, the kidlit world has already gone gaga over a contemporary alternate universe where magic has been criminalized, and it's really hard to go head-to-head with Holly Black. That said, I really loved some of the moral complexity Powell tackled in this book, and where she left it at the end.
Conservation as Battleground: Kakapo Rescue by Sy Montgomery, pictures by Nic Bishop
I'm always disposed to like the Scientists in the Field series for their excellent pictures and their interesting take on conversation and nature-related topics. This one highlights the ups and downs of attempting to preserve a species that has fallen to less than 100 members.