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.

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: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

saving francesca

Book Summary

From Goodreads: Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastians, a boys’ school that’s pretends it’s coed by giving the girls their own bathroom.  Her only female companions are an ultra-feminist, a rumored slut, and an an impossibly dorky accordion player.  The boys are no better, from Thomas who specializes in musical burping to Will, the perpetually frowning, smug moron that Francesca can’t seem to stop thinking about.

Then there’s Francesca’s mother, who always thinks she knows what’s best for Francesca—until she is suddenly stricken with acute depression, leaving Francesca lost, along, and without an inkling who she really is.  Simultaneously humorous, poignant, and impossible to put down, this is the story of a girl who must summon the strength to save her family, her social life and—hardest of all—herself.

Review: 5 out of 5 Stars

It’s official – Melina Marchetta is a must read author for me. While this book was so different from and less grand than my beloved On the Jellicoe Road, it was its own breed of perfect.

This novel centers on Francesca, a high school junior who is starting a new school and will be one of only 35 girls in an all-boys school. It starts on the first day of her mother’s nervous breakdown and follows her throughout this year as she has to face (and find?) certain truths about herself and her family.

I actually don’t think the Goodreads (or my) summary do this story justice.  It is about high school and friends and boys and family, but it’s somehow about more than that as well.  I called it less grand than Jellicoe Road, and it is, but it also tackles some tough concepts really well – mental illness and the stigma surrounding it being the mostly obvious example. I thought Marchetta’s treatment of this subject was just so good; she managed to incorporate both some great reactions and terrible reactions to the mother’s breakdown, in a totally non-judgmental way.

I also thought the relationship development was spot on.  It develops organically and in a way that makes you remember your own first serious love interest and all the butterflies that came along. And the beautiful writing on friendships and how important finding a group of true friends is to your life was just perfect.  There was bickering and misunderstandings and gossip and just pure love and it was amazing.

But what this author does as well as or better than almost anyone else I’ve read lately is she just writes teenagers perfectly (and, thus, painfully sometimes). Francesca here is discovering some important things about her family and herself and who she can be, and Marchetta writes that moment of self-discovery and all the turmoil that comes with it just perfectly.

In fact, what I love about YA – and what I think Marchetta did so well here – is that really good YA focuses on a really tough point in a person’s life where she (or he) is really choosing what kind of person to be. The late teen years are tumultuous at best and really great writers can make so much out of that time in life – whether set in a contemporary, or dystopian, or yes, even well written paranormal romance setting. I think that what really good YA does is gives teen readers permission to feel, to find inner strength, to fight the odds, to see themselves in someone who is not many years older. Do I think a great deal of it has to do with marketing choices? Of course. But I do think it’s about more than that.

And since everyone has at one point been a teenager and remembers those turning points, I think YA has the ability to really speak to readers of all ages. This novel, particularly, is just a great example of pinpointing that moment when you start finding a glimpse of your true self.  I thought it was just beautiful.

I loved this novel and I cannot wait to get my hands on more Marchetta immediately.

Bottom Line

I absolutely love both this novel and this author.  If you’ve been shying away from contemporary YA, I recommend you dig in to some Marchetta.  You won’t look back.

Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Print

Book Summary

From GoodreadsFirst, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire – and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

Review: 4 out of 5 Stars

This book was a perfect example of needing to read something at the right time. I have tried reading it 3 or 4 times previously and the soporific effects reached near Austen-like levels for me. But I picked it back up on a whim a few nights ago and could not put it down!

In this novel, supernatural creatures (most notably werewolves and vampires) exist openly in society and are, more or less, accepted. Alexia is a preternatural, which here means she has no soul and her mere touch can bring the supernatural creatures back to a mortal state as long as she remains in contact with them. Her love interest, Lord Maccon, is a werewolf and head of a supernatural police force charged with policing its own kind. He is the Alpha male of his pack (oh, and Scottish…) and he and sharp-tongued Alexia match tempers as often as affections. Oh and also steampunk.

The two get caught up in a mystery relating to disappearing vampires and werewolves.  Maccon is the head detective for the supernatural set and Alexia keeps showing up where people are disappearing.  The two obviously have some history, but at first their interactions are more on the hate side of the love-hate scale.  As the book progresses, the love story heats up.  It was very rewarding and oh-so-Victorian, though worth at least a PG-13 rating.  I particularly like that it seems that there will be no love triangles or will-they/won’t-they drawn out over the entire series.  I am a fan of commitment, and also I think it is more true to the time period in which the book is set.

I loved the alternate history in the novel and thought it added not only to the story itself, but to the telling of the story. You can tell that the author took care with her setting, and not only with the plot and characters.  Alexia’s narrations and Victorian sensibilities were often hilarious. I grew a bit tired of the repeated reference to her looks and love of food, but generally thought she was a great character.  I also loved the characters around her – her flamboyant vampire friend Lord Adelkama, her prudish best friend, and Maccon’s second-in-command were all well-drawn and fun to read about.  It has been awhile since I wanted to jump into a book and befriend everyone in it, but this was definitely one of those books.

The mystery part was also great. I could see a few of the twists and turns coming, but not all. There was plenty left to surprise me at the end.

Bottom Line

Overall, this was a very fun and unique read.  The steampunk Victorian setting was so well written, and Alexia and Maccon are a super fun love interest. I can’t wait to read more of these adventures.

 

Book Review: Reality Boy by A.S. King

Reality Boy by A.S. King

reality boy

Book Summary

From Goodreads: Gerald Faust knows exactly when he started feeling angry: the day his mother invited a reality television crew into his five-year-old life. Twelve years later, he’s still haunted by his rage-filled youth—which the entire world got to watch from every imaginable angle—and his anger issues have resulted in violent outbursts, zero friends, and clueless adults dumping him in the special education room at school.

Nothing is ever going to change. No one cares that he’s tried to learn to control himself, and the girl he likes has no idea who he really is. Everyone’s just waiting for him to snap…and he’s starting to feel dangerously close to doing just that.

Review: 5 out of 5 Stars

I loved this book.  But it wrecked me.

Gerald is just about to turn seventeen years old.  When he was five, a reality television show came to his home to “help” his parents with discipline.  As part of his acting out, Gerald took to defecating around his home. Apparently this was very popular viewing twelve years ago, and lives on through YouTube, and so Gerald has grown up in his home town known as The Crapper.  You can imagine how that has been for him.

After a very violent and angry period in middle school, Gerald has spent a lot of time trying to stifle any emotion that could possibly lead to anger. But that’s tough since his biggest trigger – your psychopathic sister – is still living in the house with him and still tormenting him. This book was an examination of what it is like for Gerald to grow up after being in that fishbowl of reality television and how he is succeeding at unmaking the “reality” that was edited for him all those years ago, both in his mind and in the minds of others.

I read a lot of Young Adult literature, and one thing that is always fascinating for me as a person who is no longer a young adult (and, in fact, is teenager number of years away from being one) is re-living the pain that comes with being a teen.  You are just on the cusp of figuring out who you are and experiencing life away from home and all that comes with that, and in some ways you feel completely ready, but you are not quite there yet.  And that can sometimes be a suffocating feeling.

Great YA is often about these moments when as a teenager you get glimpses of your real adult life, and the self-discovery that comes with that.  This book was no exception.  As Gerald meets the girl who will become his girlfriend, and forces himself to put words to his history, he is finally able to catch glimpses of his true self. That self-discovery was written so beautifully, and so painfully.  A.S. King is a master of this kind of writing.  She is a forever champion of the underdog and writes those kinds of characters with pitch perfect accuracy.

But reading this as a parent of my own three-year-old son was almost impossible.  I had to put the book down many times because of the pain that was radiating off the page.  I have a really hard time now reading about characters that are just wrecked by their parents, especially their mothers. And Gerald’s family was a doozy.

One scene in particular, early in the book, nearly broke my heart.  Gerald is working at a hockey game and a woman comes up to him to recognizes him from the show. Gerald is on edge when he realizes this, but all she wants is a hug.  And to apologize.  And Gerald realizes that this is the first time he has been hugged in his memory.

I also wanted to jump into this story and give him a hug. And more therapy.  And another hug.  I wanted to go back in time and wrap up that little five-year-old and protect him from life. It just felt so utterly painful and real.

With this book King succeeded not only at writing this beautiful story about Gerald, but also – hopefully – at making us question our society’s fascination with “reality” television and the need for fame. We become fascinated with these people without really knowing any single unedited thing about them.  It’s such a crazy thing and one that King explores in a very intelligent way here.

If I had any little complaint, it’s only the ending which slightly put me off, and the fact that Gerald seems to be relying so heavily on his girlfriend to effectuate his self-discovery. I appreciate that his relationship allows him to speak so many of his truths for the first time, but I also hope that down the line he is able to find this love from himself and not necessarily only externally.

Bottom Line

As you can tell, I highly recommend this novel. A.S. King writes excellent, complex characters, who begin their story cocooned in pain, but eventually emerge into something beautiful. Gerald was a great character and his story will definitely stick with me. I can’t wait to devour more of her novels immediately.