Book Review: Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Flora

Book Summary

From Goodreads: Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry—and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart. From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters and featuring an exciting new format—a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black-and-white by up-and-coming artist K.G. Campbell.

Review: 5 out of 5 Stars

Holy bagumba, I loved this book!

In this Newberry Award winning novel, Kate DiCamillo tells the tale of young Flora, a self-professed cynic living with her mother, a romance novelist, after the divorce of her parents. While reading comic books, she spies a young squirrel outside her window who nearly meets his doom at the hands of a vacuum cleaner. Flora saves him (sidenote: squirrel mouth-to-mouth is gross) and then befriends him after it is revealed that this near-death experience has left him with super-powers. In these pages we also meet her father, left adrift after the divorce, her neighbor, and her neighbor’s great-nephew, William Spiver (both names, please, and never Billy). Their story is told through both words and the clever illustrations of K.G. Campbell. I loved it all.

This story was in turns hilarious, touching and heart-breaking. Flora is so fun to read and I just want to hang out with her and make sure she knows it is totally ok to be exactly who she is. I thought it was really smart how they highlighted the ways that reading affected her life and how much she had learned from the reading that her mother classified as trashy.  I love books like this that validate what kids like to read.  Her budding friendship and sweet little developing crush on William Spiver was excellently handled.  William Spiver’s side story was, to be honest, heartbreaking.  I feel like for many kids it will go over their heads and was possibly a *touch* much for the middle-grade set.

Ulysses completely stole the show for me, though. His newfound love of living and life (and giant doughnuts, of course) is just beautiful. And one of his super-powers in particular literally brought me to tears at the end of the novel. I read and re-read the epilogue and wish that all Flora’s out there could have an affirming Ulysses by their side at all times.  Ms. DiCamillo’s writing of this character was just perfect, but it was enhanced so much through the illustrations.  Since Ulysses cannot speak, they cleverly used the illustrations to make him so endearing and show his inner monologue.  I thought it was really brilliantly done.

Obviously I personally can’t speak to how well this would play with the middle grade intended audience, but I bet many would like it. It seems like a good bridge book for kids who already like reading comics or graphic novels. I do see some reviews that complain about the advanced language used by Flora and William, but I think lots of young kids could relate to it. And as for the heartbreak, many of the most loved children’s novels are downright depressing when you think about it — Charlotte’s Web (death), Harriet the Spy (intense bullying), Narnia (lots of evil and betrayal) and the list goes on and on. I think this honest depiction of a divorced household and parents and children who don’t always communicate that well will actually ring true for many.

That being said, I have had the opportunity since reading this novel to speak to an 11-year-old who also read this book and, while she did like it, she thought the actions of the mother were a bit over-the-top.  In this book the mother is so focused on Flora having a “normal” life, that she does take some extreme measures to try to stop Flora from being friends with Ulysses.  After all, I’m sure toting around a balding squirrel wouldn’t be so good for your daughter’s image.  Having spoken with this 11-year-old reader, I can COMPLETELY understand why this part of the novel would be tough for kids to read (or to understand).  While — SPOILER — the mother does come around in the end, I don’t think it would have hurt the story to tone the mother down a bit.  She was neglectful, a chain smoker, and at the end did threaten physical harm to a beloved pet (and an anthropomorphic pet at that, basically guaranteeing that the young readers would be pretty horrified at the thought of harm coming to him).

Bottom Line

I really loved this read and, while I got through it in a single sitting, it has stuck with me long since.  The characters were touching and so well-written and drawn that you can’t quite let them go after reading.  Additionally, I think this book would be a great conversation starter between a parent and their child and that’s the perfect result from a middle grade read.

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February Wrap-Up

Hey all!  I am starting a new thing here on the blog: the monthly wrap-up!  I will probably mess with the formatting a bit as I figure out the way that works best for me, but here we go!  The format for this first one was totally inspired by the awesome Rachel over at Tiger Lily Rachel (though hers, as usual, looks way prettier) – you should definitely check her February wrap-up out as well!

Overall Stats

This month overall was really strong, reading-wise.  I was able to complete 19 books, bringing my total up to 50 books for the year.  This is insane to me; the highest reading year I have EVER had before now was 132 books (still strong), but I am on pace to pretty much crush that.

My 19 books included two novellas and two graphic novels, and all together included a grand total of 6,041 pages.  Insane!  As usual, my most-read genre was YA (9/19 books), but actually some of my very favorite reads this month were adult novels.  If you want to see everything I read, and read at least a short review, you can check out my Read This Month shelf on Goodreads by clicking here.  I tend to leave this up for “last month” for at least a week or so.

Five-Star Reads

This month, I actually had three five-star reads (and a crap-ton of four star reads).  My five-star reads were:

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

Spinning Heart   vicious   never sky

I actually think that order is even the order I would internally rank those 5-star reads.  I actually gave Under the Never Sky four stars at first, until about a week later when I STILL hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it.  It was one of my favorite YA dystopians in awhile, and that is saying something.  Don’t know what took me so long, but I’m glad to be on-board that train now!

February Book Reviews, Features and Favorite Posts

I was able to write four book reviews this month (and honestly, I thought it was more!).  I will definitely focus on increasing this number for next month.  If you are interested in checking those out, here they are again!

A Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (5/5 stars)
The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson (3/5 stars)
Fire & Flood by Victoria Scott (4/5 stars)
Unwind by Neil Shusterman (4/5 stars)

That last review was done as a part of Epic Recs, which is a really fun feature where book bloggers pair off together and make book recommendations to each other.  I had SO much fun doing it, and I highly suggest you check out that post to learn more!

I also participated in the Book Blogger LoveAThon this month and had the opportunity to meet so many more bloggers and add a TON of great blogs to my reading lists. I really need to update my blog roll and that is definitely on my to-do list.  To see what the LoveAThon was all about you can check out my LoveAThon 2014 category here! If you’ve never participated before, I HIGHLY recommend it next time it comes around! It was hands down the most fun I’ve had blogging!

My personal favorite post was actually made on January 30, but with the Academy Awards coming up, I want to give it a little more love and that was the Bookish Academy Awards tag that I filched from BookTube.  I had SO much fun putting this post together!  Check it out here!

I had SUCH a fun month blogging and reading.  I can’t wait to see what March brings!!

Book Review: Fire & Flood by Victoria Scott

Fire & Flood by Victoria Scott

fire & flood

Book Summary

From Goodreads: A modern day thrill ride, where a teen girl and her animal companion must participate in a breathtaking race to save her brother’s life—and her own.

Tella Holloway is losing it. Her brother is sick, and when a dozen doctors can’t determine what’s wrong, her parents decide to move to Montana for the fresh air. She’s lost her friends, her parents are driving her crazy, her brother is dying—and she’s helpless to change anything.

Until she receives mysterious instructions on how to become a Contender in the Brimstone Bleed. It’s an epic race across jungle, desert, ocean, and mountain that could win her the prize she desperately desires: the Cure for her brother’s illness. But all the Contenders are after the Cure for people they love, and there’s no guarantee that Tella (or any of them) will survive the race.

The jungle is terrifying, the clock is ticking, and Tella knows she can’t trust the allies she makes. And one big question emerges: Why have so many fallen sick in the first place?

Review: 4 out of 5 Stars

I received a copy of this from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The US publication date is February 25, 2014, from Scholastic Press.

Ok, first things first – let’s get this out of the way. Everyone is going to compare this to The Hunger Games. In this novel, a girl named Tella chooses to participate in the Brimstone Bleed in order to win a cure for her dying brother. The Brimstone Bleed is an Amazing Race-esque competition lasting three months and taking place in a variety of settings. In this book, for example, they compete in both the jungle and the desert. Over 100 people participate in this race, all fighting to earn a cure for a loved one. Even better, each participant is given an egg that eventually hatches into an amazing animal-like creature called Pandoras.  These Pandoras each have unique special powers that help the Competitors throughout the competition.

Personally, while I certainly see the HG comparisons in the broad design of the plot, I thought this one easily distinguished itself. It wasn’t truly a dystopian – the world is otherwise fairly normal aside from this race. There was no love triangle (thank goodness). Not everyone has to die – though some do, of course. And Tella is no Katniss. Where Katniss was scheming and distrustful (rightfully), Tella is open and in many ways guileless. Another main difference is that Tella doesn’t seem to have a huge number of innate talents that will help her in this competition, aside from her awesome Pandora, a black fox named Madox, and the skills of the various friends she makes along the way. Granted, she is referred to as a good runner and she apparently throws an awesome right hook, but really her open heart is her main tool and it serves her well through this book.

This book had many strong points for me. I loved the concept of the Pandoras, each with their own personalities and gifts. Madox especially was a treat and I want one right now, please and thank you.  I know the animal companion thing has been seen in other places, but I don’t remember it in any recent YA and I thought it was a fun addition. The Pandoras did serve as a bit of a deus ex but I think that was the point, to be honest, so it didn’t bother me.

I also thought the dialogue was well done here. I actually believed Tella was 17 and enjoyed the way her internal monologue changed and grew as the book progressed. And Harper. Harper is another competitor who teams up with Tella and basically serves as a catalyst for bringing our group of protagonists together. Parts of me wish Harper was the main character of this novel. She was a serious BAMF and I want to know more about her and be her best friend immediately.  I think there will also be many who get swoony for the love interest.  He was a bit too “protect my woman” for me, but it is always fun seeing the mysterious male character reveal his various layers.  I want to know a LOT more about his back story and how he got to be the way he is. I’m hoping that comes in later books.

There were also some things I didn’t totally love. Tella was actually not my favorite character. I wanted her to be stronger for herself, not through others. She had a bit of a relying-on-boys thing that annoyed me at times. I also wanted a bit more background on her and her family before jumping into the action to help me care more about the conflict in the story. She is doing all of this for her brother, who we really know nothing about.  I think a few additional chapters at the front would have helped us be more invested in her race.

There was also one twist related to the Pandoras at the end that struck me as false-feeling and in some conflict with the development of the plot and boundaries of the game as they had been introduced up to that point. I realize it was likely done to prove to the reader that there are no rules in this game, but it was so jarring that I couldn’t reconcile it. And I didn’t love how much of a cliffhanger this book was – I don’t mind a series, but I prefer them to be a bit more able to stand on their own in terms of a fully finished plot.

Bottom Line

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. I powered through it in a few hours and legitimately cared what happened to Tella and her friends. I will absolutely be checking out the rest of this series. If you like dystopian feeling novels with a touch of romance and a thrilling plot, pick this one up. You won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson

tyrants daughter

Book Summary

From Goodreads: From a former CIA officer comes the riveting account of a royal Middle Eastern family exiled to the American suburbs.

When her father is killed in a coup, 15-year-old Laila flees from the war-torn middle east to a life of exile and anonymity in the U.S. Gradually she adjusts to a new school, new friends, and a new culture, but while Laila sees opportunity in her new life, her mother is focused on the past. She’s conspiring with CIA operatives and rebel factions to regain the throne their family lost. Laila can’t bear to stand still as an international crisis takes shape around her, but how can one girl stop a conflict that spans generations?

J.C. Carleson delivers a fascinating account of a girl—and a country—on the brink, and a rare glimpse at the personal side of international politics.

Review: 3 out of 5 Stars

I received a copy of this from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It was published February 11, 2014, by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

I struggled with whether to give this book 3 or 4 stars. It had many strong points, but ultimately a few weak spots that took me outside of the story.

In this novel, Laila is a teenage girl who, along with her mother and young brother, has just emigrated from her country in the Middle East to the United Stares following the assassination of her father. Her father was a dictator in this unnamed Middle Eastern country and her uncle has since taken over. Her brother is considered by many to be the rightful leader. Her mother is a schemer and manipulator who is working almost every side of the political spectrum to get her son back into his country and back into power. And this leaves Laila unsure of her spot in the world, either in her home country or here in the United States. At her new school in the US, she makes friends, meets some boys, and gets a taste of what it is like to be a teenager in the United States. She also befriends Amir, a boy from her own home country.  This book follows her journey in the United States, as well as toward learning more about her own history.

A good deal of this book is about Laila coming to terms with her new life in the US. Seeing our country through her eyes was definitely eye-opening. I most enjoyed the parts of this book that explored her time at school and difficulty making friends and adjusting to the differences between her life in the U.S. and in her previous home.  Also, the parts of this book where she discovers that her father was not truly known as “king,” but as dictator absolutely wrecked me. In that way, I thought the author did an excellent job of humanizing a conflict that can sometimes seem more than a world away.

I also liked Laila as a character, though thought she wasn’t always a believable teenager. But I thought most of the rest of the characters (possibly with Amir aside) were pretty one-dimensional. You had a preppy friend, a teenage boy, other high school characters – they just weren’t given full color to me, and I didn’t care about them that much as a result.  I also felt like the end was very rushed and wanted more time to deal with the fall-out of the ending.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that I felt a lack of closure at the end and was left unsatisfied.

Bottom Line

Despite some one-sided characters and the feeling of needing more resolution from this novel, I am glad to have read this novel. It definitely provided a new and different voice in the YA market and helps to give a voice to a very under-represented group in YA literature.  If nothing else, I think reading this helped me walk in someone else’s shoes for a time, and in many ways that alone makes it worth reading.

Book Review: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Spinning Heart

Book Summary

From Goodreads: In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.

The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant.

Review: 5 out of 5 Stars

I received a copy of this from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It was the 2010 winner of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year award and the US publication date is February 25, 2014, from Steerforth Press.

I am still at a loss on how best to review this gorgeous piece of writing. It is the easiest 5-star rating I have given this year.

I’ll start with the facts, then. 160 pages, 21 chapters. Each chapter is narrated by a different character who is somehow linked to a small town outside of Dublin following the economic crash. The chapters are all written using dialect, but never so much that it is difficult to read or comprehend. The chapters weave together with references overlapping and tying everything together into one cohesive story. I started reading this around 11:30pm and was not able to stop until I had finished it a few hours later. I kept telling myself I would read “just one more chapter'” but then there was a new character to meet and a new mystery to unravel and a new voice to explore.

One of the greatest strengths in this novel is the dialect. The dialect is written so brilliantly that it legitimately feels as though 21 different people narrate the story. I never got lost or confused between the characters because somehow the voices were so distinctly crafted – with little turns of phrase here and there that let you know this is a new person with his own story to tell.  There was one chapter, for example, written from the perspective of someone who is not natively from Ireland.  Within a few sentences I knew this fact about our new narrator, despite the fact that the actual disclosure of this didn’t come for a few more pages.

The story itself is also deeply compelling. Although the larger story is tied to Dell leaving the Dublin area, the immediate plot is more closely linked to the collapse of a construction company in a small, unnamed town outside of Dublin. The manager of the company had illegally not been reporting his employees, making it impossible for them to collect unemployment or a legally required pension. The manager skips town, leaving the men who worked for him lost and drifting, but still trying to keep up the picture of machismo and aura of not caring that seems to be the picture of the Irish man (at least in literature). The novel opens with a chapter from the perspective of the company’s foreman, Bobby, and the rest of the novel is basically spent unraveling everything we learn in this first chapter.

Every single narrator is somewhat self-absorbed and unreliable, but we still get these beautiful, painful depictions of what they truly think of themselves. There are points where the reader starts to know more than our narrators and you just want to jump into the book and mediate some communication, or give someone a hug, or stop that person from making a terrible decision based on half-truths. You start to feel like you know these people and this town, and it is impossible to walk away.

Bottom Line

The story was in turns beautiful, hilarious, heartbreaking and unforgettable. I think this will be a work I revisit time and time again, getting something new from it each time. It’s cliche to say that it brought to mind Joyce, but what it brought to mind was my discovery of Joyce and the way that beautiful language can be used to communicate painful things.

I highly recommend this work.

Book Review: The Weight of Souls by Bryony Pearce

The Weight of Souls by Bryony Pearce

WeightofSouls

Book Summary

From Goodreads: Sixteen year old Taylor Oh is cursed: if she is touched by the ghost of a murder victim then they pass a mark beneath her skin. She has three weeks to find their murderer and pass the mark to them – letting justice take place and sending them into the Darkness. And if she doesn’t make it in time? The Darkness will come for her.

She spends her life trying to avoid ghosts, make it through school where she’s bullied by popular Justin and his cronies, keep her one remaining friend, and persuade her father that this is real and that she’s not going crazy.

But then Justin is murdered and everything gets a whole lot worse. Justin doesn’t know who killed him, so there’s no obvious person for Taylor to go after. The clues she has lead her to the V Club, a vicious secret society at her school where no one is allowed to leave… and where Justin was dared to do the stunt which led to his death.

Can she find out who was responsible for his murder before the Darkness comes for her? Can she put aside her hatred for her former bully to truly help him? And what happens if she starts to fall for him?

Review: 4 Stars

*I received this eARC from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The expected publication date is August 6, 2013.*

First of all, can we PLEASE discuss this cover. The cover artist, Steve Wood, did an absolutely amazing job. Even before I read the book I loved it, but having read the book now I think it fits even more perfectly. I am going to have to track down a physical copy of this book once it comes out just to enjoy it in its full glory.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss the book itself. I thought it was a great read. The main character, Taylor, has a family curse that causes her to be able to see ghosts. Not only can she see ghosts, but if a ghost touches her who was killed in an unresolved way, then the ghost passes along a Dark Mark. Taylor has to find the murderer and pass the Mark along within approximately three weeks, then the Darkness will come for her instead. The unraveling of how her family got the curse in the first place is a fun part of the story, so I won’t spoil it here, but it originates in ancient Egypt and involves Anubis. If that doesn’t interest you, I really don’t know what more I can say.

As you can imagine, the curse makes it difficult for Taylor to have any true friends and high school is basically the worst. She is ignored by most, but mercilessly bullied by one group of students, led by a boy named Justin. She also has a bad relationship with her father, who does not believe that Taylor actually sees ghosts and is desperately trying to determine a cure for her hallucinations. Justin eventually dies and touches Taylor, passing on his Mark and linking the two of them together in a hunt for his killers.

Overall, I thought this book was very strong. The interaction between Taylor and the ghosts was interesting and believable and there was a great amount of backstory provided while still setting up additional conflict for what I assume is going to be the first story in a series. The picture of high school was all too realistic and the students were well drawn. The eventual relationship makes sense and is a slow burn, rather than a magical insta-love type of thing, which I always appreciate. I liked Taylor, understood her internal conflict and motivations, and am excited to read more of her story.

There were a few weak spots to me. The first was the character of Taylor’s dad. I understand being confused about the curse as an outsider, but since Taylor’s mom also suffered from the same curse, his reaction made him very unlikeable. I didn’t understand her desire to have any kind of relationship with him, to be honest. I also didn’t really understand Justin’s popularity or control over the main group of teenagers. And the name of “the V Club” made me think it was going to be about virginity… Just me? But those issues aside, I think this is a strong new series that I will for sure be following.

Bottom Line

This novel is a strong first entry in a series that shows a lot of promise. Taylor is an interesting protagonist and her development arc in this story is both believeable and entertaining. While there is some romance, it does not overtake the story and actually seems realistic in the context of the novel. There are undertones of greater themes at work – concepts of justice, true love, friendship and death. All of this and it’s funny and self-aware to boot – even referencing the quote that has to be on everyone’s mind when reading a modern ghost story. It stands alone well enough while leaving enough background conflict for those who choose to follow the series. It’s a great new entry into YA supernatural urban fantasy and one that I will certainly be following.