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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Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

shades of grey

Book Summary

From Goodreads: Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Eddie’s world wasn’t always like this. There’s evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion.

Eddie, who works for the Color Control Agency, might well have lived out his rose-tinted life without a hitch. But that changes when he becomes smitten with Jane, a Grey Nightseer from the dark, unlit side of the village. She shows Eddie that all is not well with the world he thinks is just and good.

Review: 4 out of 5 Stars

If you enjoy cleverly-written, tongue-in-cheek, intelligent fantasy, you really must read something written by Jasper Fforde.  While Fforde is probably best known for his Thursday Next series, which is also excellent, Shades of Grey was his first entry into the world of YA.  This was swiftly followed by his next YA series, The Last Dragonslayer, which I ALSO really loved. This is becoming a pattern with me and Fforde, as you can see.

Shades of Grey is a really engaging dystopian written in Fforde’s usual nonsensical style. In this world, people are divided in a very strict caste system based on the hues they are able to see, governed by the Colortocracy.  When a person comes of age, they are permitted to take a test that evaluates what colors you can see and how well.  Both the color spectrum you can see as well as the strength of the hue provide your lot in life.  Everything from the person you are able to marry to the job you are able to perform is defined through this test.  Fforde makes clear that this society has come directly from the society we live in now, though how this major change came about is not immediately clear. There are many references to our present world, and through these Fforde manages a few tongue-in-cheek jabs at our society.

As with so many Fforde novels, Shades of Grey is utterly confusing at first, because the world is never built through info-dump, but through tantalizing clues throughout the novel. And yet somehow, it works.  You find yourself building the world in your mind as you go as then, snap, the final piece falls into place on the very last page and it all comes together. The world was immense and clearly developed. And because it was based entirely on a color-based ranking system, the entire novel was just so visual, making it a very interesting reading experience.

Another Fforde hallmark is a somewhat stilted cadance and flow to the dialogue.  The characters speak in stilted ways and it does take a few chapters to get completely used to the flow of the novel.  That said, I loved the characters in this novel, even though few of them were actually likeable. I particuarly enjoyed Eddie’s character development as he goes from a sort of goody-two-shoes to uncovering the various flaws inherent in his world.

My only sadness is that the rest of the trilogy is not yet out.  I am comforted by the high re-read potential this novel has and I look forward to pulling it back off the shelf very soon.

Bottom Line

This novel is yet another example of Fforde doing what he does best — writes these impossibly possible novels that stick with you long after the book is over. Highly recommended.

Epic Recs Book Review (1): Unwind by Neil Shusterman

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Hey everyone!  Remember back on February 12 when I told you I was participating in Epic Recs? This a really fun online book club idea hosted by Judith at Paper Riot and Amber from Books of Amber.  If you’re interested in more info and the rules and whatnot, check out Judith’s post here.

This month I was paired up with the AWESOME Kim from The Avid Reader.  She recommended that I read Unwind by Neil Shusterman.  I have read it and now I am here to review it! Let me just say up front, though, that I am really grateful to have been paired with Kim.  She was really fun to start catching up with on Twitter and her blog is great.  Plus she had such a great recommendation for me this month!  Thanks, Kim!

Unwind by Neil Shusterman

 unwind

Book Summary

From Goodreads: The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

I was very glad that Kim suggested this read to me, because it’s really not one I probably would have picked up and prioritized on my own.  I don’t personally choose to mix my politics with, well, anything, so the summary of this book had always kind of turned me off a little.  Basically, in this book there was a huge War fought over the right to have abortions.  The “compromise” that they came up with outlaws abortions, but permits a child to basically be killed — oh, sorry, “unwound” — at the request of their parents anytime between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, and their organs to be repurposed in others through organ donation.  As a result, there is almost no ailment or physical deformity that cannot be cured — assuming you make it past the age of eighteen, of course.  If you make it past the age of eighteen without your parents requesting that you be unwound, you are home free, but if your parents make the request, it cannot be taken back and there is basically no escape.  No one really understands the unwinding process or how it works, but there are starting to be hints and rumors that not all is what it seems.

The story follows three protagonists who have all been selected to be unwound — Connor, Risa and Lev.  All have been selected for unwinding for different reasons: Connor because of behavioral issues, Risa because she is an orphan and hasn’t proven to be of any particular special worth and Lev because he was the tenth child in his family and was conceived for the specific purpose of unwinding as a religious tithe.  Connor is horrified at the prospect of being unwound and goes on the run.  While he is in the process of running from the police, he causes a car accident that allows the paths of all of our protagonists to cross, and they all start traveling together.  Both Connor and Risa are horrified at the prospect of being unwound, but Lev is devastated to have been swept up in this escape process.  All of his life he has been taught that being unwound as a tithe is an honor and a good thing to do, so finding himself in the company of two deviants is pretty much more than he can handle.

The rest of the book follows the paths of Connor, Risa and Lev as they continue to try to escape their unwinding fates, get to know more about each other and develop their own feelings about and opinions on the society they live in.

So what did you think?

Overall, I really “enjoyed” this book.  I thought the character development that each of our protagonists go through was totally believable and well-thought out.  Shusterman writes each of these teens so well and so believably that it is very easy to put yourself in their shoes.   Overall, while Lev wasn’t my FAVORITE character, I personally connected to his character development arc the most.  Connor was also very interesting, but I guess I wanted a bit more from his background to understand WHY he was being unwound in the first place.  Risa was probably the least-well explored and developed, for me.

I also really loved the side characters we came across.  At one point, for example, Lev parts ways from Connor and Risa and ends up traveling with a boy named Cyrus Finch, or CyFi.  He was probably my favorite part of the entire book and I thought that the side plot and exploration of organ memory was so freaking well-done.

Ok, Emily, why the quotes around “enjoyed” then?

This book was absolutely freaking horrifying.  It was just so difficult to read.  The society, though in some ways so totally UNbelievably terrible, is so clearly drawn that it seems more possible than you would like to admit.  There is one chapter in particular (and if you’ve read this book I guarantee you know what I mean) that was just gut-wrenchingly awful — I still find myself thinking about it, and it was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever read.  Since Shusterman’s writing is so clear and detailed, you get drawn totally into this terrible world, and that was actually really tough.

I did have a few small issues with this novel — there were a few expansive tangents on the background of the War and the politics underlying everything that I thought drifted a bit into preaching.  I skimmed them, mostly, and didn’t think they added a lot to the novel.  In fact, they often took me out of the storyline.  I thought there were parts of this book that could make people even more squeamish about organ donation than some people already are.  I don’t know that Shusterman meant to do it that way (in fact, there was one line where he basically says “if more people donated organs, this [dystopian society] never would have happened”), but some parts surrounding organ donation and unwinding were so terrible and graphic, I do fear it could be taken the wrong way.

Bottom Line

Overall, I really thought this novel was worth a read, but it is TOUGH to read.  Shusterman’s writing is really beautiful and the novel is well done and makes you think.  I think this would be the perfect novel to read with a group, because there is just so much to talk about, much of which is hard to cover in a spoiler-free review.  I am not in a hurry to move on in the series just because I think I need to recover first.  That being said, I will finish out this series at some point because Shusterman is a master and I need to see what happens in this world.

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.