Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Moon Over Manifest

In my opinion, it completely deserves that shiny sticker. This is the first book to make me full-out cry in months. Not that that's my only way to measure a book's worth. Here's a short summary from Amazon:

After a life of riding the rails with her father, 12-year-old Abilene can’t understand why he has sent her away to stay with Pastor Shady Howard in Manifest, Missouri, a town he left years earlier; but over the summer she pieces together his story. In 1936, Manifest is a town worn down by sadness, drought, and the Depression, but it is more welcoming to newcomers than it was in 1918, when it was a conglomeration of coal-mining immigrants who were kept apart by habit, company practice, and prejudice. Abilene quickly finds friends and uncovers a local mystery. Their summerlong “spy hunt” reveals deep-seated secrets and helps restore residents’ faith in the bright future once promised on the town’s sign. Abilene’s first-person narrative is intertwined with newspaper columns from 1917 to 1918 and stories told by a diviner, Miss Sadie, while letters home from a soldier fighting in WWI add yet another narrative layer. Vanderpool weaves humor and sorrow into a complex tale involving murders, orphans, bootlegging, and a mother in hiding. With believable dialogue, vocabulary and imagery appropriate to time and place, and well-developed characters, this rich and rewarding first novel is “like sucking on a butterscotch. Smooth and sweet.”

When I first read a description of this novel I thought, "Typical Newbery format - historical fiction - child sent off to live somewhere unknown - uncovers secrets from past about family and learns about self." I wondered if this formula was getting a bit overdone and whether or not this would be any good.

Turns out my Newbery rule still holds true. I have yet to read one I haven't loved. LOVED. I wanted to adopt Abilene. I wanted to pack up and move to Manifest (which is saying a lot because back when Kansas and I were neighbors I wasn't all that impressed with the state). This story is so sweet and so emotional. It really brought history to life and left me moved and uplifted. We're told to seek out the best books and I can guarantee you that this is one of them.


It was almost all I wanted it to be. Timeless is a fascinating new YA novel using one of my absolute favorite storytelling devices: Time travel. Here's the Amazon summary:

"In Timeless, we are introduced to Michele Windsor, one of the modern bluebloods of the historic Windsor family. Struggling to find her place in a world of prestige and old-fashioned values, Michele sifts through family relics in search of answers. When she discovers her great-great-grandmother’s diary and begins poring through its pages, she finds herself whisked back in time to the Gilded Age. There, Michele meets the man whom she always wished existed, but hadn’t dared to believe in. Inextricably drawn to each other, the two fall in love. But as Michele drifts between modern life and the world of the past, she begins to piece together an alarming family mystery -- one that may doom her life and the life of the man she loves. Timeless is a captivating romance and mystery spanning three decades of high-society life and intrigue in New York City."

Ah the history was great! I loved Michele's first-hand experiences of the Gilded Age, the 20s, and pre WWII eras. Music also played an important role in the story and that always makes me happy. Also, as a big fan of family history, I loved that Michele met and connected with several generations of her ancestors, who each played an important role in the plot. The story was great and had several fascinating plot layers. I also liked that there was no cookie cutter happy ending. The ending was complex and, of course, left it open for a sequel.

I just wish.... well, several things. I thought that Michele and Phillip fell in love so quickly and I wasn't really sure why. It wasn't very convincing to me. Another thing I thought was lacking was a bit of character depth. I wanted to get to know everyone in this novel better: Michele, Phillip, her ancestors, and the modern-day characters (such as Michele's grandparents and NY school friends). I think it would have helped me get more into the story, which could have been so much more moving than it was. All in all, the writing felt a little flat. It was lacking sparkle, pizzazz, originality. Too much cliche.

There are so many good things about this novel. It was sooo close. I'll definitely be checking out the sequel.

Court Duel

Fabulous and even better than Crown Duel. This book has a great romance story in it (completely clean too) and I loved all the intrigues and mysteries surrounding court life. Meliara's struggles were less physical and more psychological and I loved watching her grow and mature and come into her own intelligence. The romance was a bit predictable, but that didn't affect how much I enjoyed it. There's a fabulous You've Got Mail-ish correspondence in this book that I thought was very clever and well done. Excellent sequel.

My only complaint about the Crown/Court Duet? The covers. Seriously not great. It makes me not want to buy them (not that I have money to buy books right now anyway). I wish someone would revamp the covers and rerelease these two books. I think they're so worth the read.

Outside In

I was a little disappointed by Outside In, and I'm not sure how exactly to put my finger on it... Maybe Inside Out just seemed so interesting, so revolutionary, and now the idea isn't quite so novel. There are no "woah!" revelations in Outside In. Also, while Inside Out was what I'd definitely call a teen novel, Outside In becomes a bit more of an adult novel. And when I say that, I'm mostly talking about physical romance. I thought it was a bit unnecessary... And you know, I think that feeling applies to the whole novel. A sequel wasn't really necessary to Inside Out. Why can't anyone write a stand-alone novel anymore?

Now, I'm not saying that this is complete rubbish. Maria V. Snyder has written several novels that I've really enjoyed. Love her writing voice and the plot was well-crafted. There were plenty of interesting and intense moments to keep things moving along. I'd read this over all sorts of other lame teen novels any day. But... I won't be buying it and I highly doubt I'll ever read it again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Delightful. That's how I'd describe the experience that this book is. And it really is an experience, because it's not a book you just read. If you notice, that shiny gold sticker is the Caldecott medal, NOT the Newbery. This is a 544 page-long picture book. But not really. This is what Brian Selznick has to say about Hugo: "... this is not exactly a novel, and it's not quite a picture book, and it's not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things."

I love that the pictures tell part of the story. There are pages with words on them, but then there are several page-long picture sequences, and they really do tell the story better than if Selznick had written about what was going on. And it's a fabulous story. Hugo is a young thief in Paris, and he uncovers several secrets (while trying to hide a few of his own). I loved the story and learned a lot, surprisingly, about the early history of French cinema. Hugo has earned its way onto my 'to-buy' list. I highly recommend checking it out!

Threads and Flames

I feel like I lived in this book while I read it. The descriptions were so vivid and engrossing that every time I opened the book I walked right in. I knew exactly what it felt like to be an immigrant in the early 1900s in New York, because I was one. Sweat shops and factories and learning English and arriving from a different country... I experienced it all. This book is based on the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that happened on March 25, 1911. We're coming up on the 100 year anniversary of this devastating fire that didn't have to happen. If only working conditions had been better. If only companies didn't lock their employees in because they were afraid of theft. If only firetruck ladders had reached higher than the sixth floor, maybe all those people trapped in the eigth, ninth, and tenth floors could have escaped the fire. Be prepared to feel some terrifying emotions. Seeing this experience through the eyes of a fictional character makes it come alive. All those people who died will not be just names, but faces and families and backstories. This is why I love historical fiction. If you read this book, be prepared to be moved, and if you're at all like me, be prepared to cry. Just warning you.

If you want to learn more about the Triangle Shirtwait Factory fire, PBS recently did a documentary on it which you can watch online. Just look under the American Experience link.

Crown Duel

I have learned an important lesson: Trust Shannon Hale. This book has been on my 'to-read' list since I first read an interview Shannon Hale did with Sherwood Smith ages ago. Years ago, I think. I should have learned my lesson after I read My Fair Godmother. READ EVERYTHING SHANNON HALE RECOMMENDS. Or at least that applies to me. I think that Shannon Hale and I must have very similar tastes.

This is a fabulous book. Very Goose Girl-ish or Enna Burning-ish. It also reminded me of Robin McKinley in some ways. Excellent fantasy. Fabulous. (Did I already use that word?) Great coming of age story and I am literally attempting to kick myself for not requesting the sequel at the same time I requested this book. It's waiting for me now at the library and I can't wait to read what happens next in this story.

The Maze Runner and the Scorch Trials

I've been waiting forever to get The Scorch Trials from the library. I own The Maze Runner, but I just haven't had the money to buy the sequel. So, when my turn to read it finally came up, I eagerly picked it up and realized that I barely remembered The Maze Runner! So I read it again first. They are both very intense reads. I recommend them if you like The Hunger Games and Ender's Game. Very good and will definitely keep you on edge guessing what's going to happen. Scorch Trials was more violent and graphic than Maze Runner. I'd almost classify it as a zombie book, which I can't really explain without giving important plot elements away. All I have left to say is that I'm anxiously awaiting The Death Cure to find out how it all ends. Is there no end to how many loose plot holes and questions James Dashner can leave me hanging with??? He better wrap them all up, or I might combust.

Drawing Heaven Into Your Marriage

Another book for my marriage class; this one from the LDS perspective. I was a bit frustrated with this book and I had a hard time getting into it. It discusses marriage from the perspective that if we choose to become more Christ-like, then we will solve our marital problems. It's not that the premise was bad, I just didn't love Goddard's writing voice. He was very informal and used exclamation points constantly. Now, I like exclamation points. I use them. A lot! (Okay, that one was a little forced). But, I just felt like the tone wasn't very consistent with the material. I do have to add, though, that I found the last couple chapters very uplifting and even moving. It's like he saved all his good stuff for the end. Anyway, it's not a bad book, and I'm glad that I read it, even if I didn't love the first 3/4ths. :D

The Musician's Daughter

When I found this book and read the description, I thought I'd hit the jackpot. YA musical historical fiction. Haydn is one of the main characters! Also, Susanne Dunlap's most resent book has gotten great reviews from book bloggers. Despite all that, I was a bit disappointed with The Musician's Daughter. I couldn't help but feel that the characters were a little flat and under-developed. I wanted to get to know them better. The writing was good, and the history was interesting, but I never quite got into it. The mystery was... solveable. I guessed the ending very early on. Also, there's no romance in this book. I'm not saying that every book needs romance, but I think that this one would have benefitted from some. Just my opinion. I was hoping that this would be exactly what I'm looking for, but it wasn't. Looks like if I want to find the perfect book for my interests, I'll have to write it myself. Ha! Wish me luck with that one.

Anna and the French Kiss

Seriously, the two main things going against this book are 1) the title, and 2) the cheesy-looking cover. I kept reading amazing reviews of this book everywhere I turned, but I had a hard time getting past the title and the cover. Finally, I gave in. And it was so good I have been disappointed with every book I have read since.

Now, I feel like I have to give a couple warnings. There is some swearing (pretty serious swearing) and immoral acts are alluded to (but never acted out). It's still a cleaner book than a lot of other YA lit I've read recently. It's much better than what you'd find in, say, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books. If they didn't bother you, this won't bother you.

That out of the way, I'm ready to tell you that this book is funny. Lots of witty, guffaw-out-loud dialogue. I loved the characters and I loved how well you got to know them. This book is about Anna, who is sent by her author father to spend her senior year at a high school for rich American teens in Paris. Anna is not excessively rich, by the way. Her author father has had very little to do with her life, so she is surprisingly humble and down to earth. I liked her so much and felt like I knew her so well that when I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I thought, "Oh, Anna would love this book!" She loves Cinematic History. Here I am, thinking of a book character as if we were actually friends. Embarrassing!

There's more I could say, but I'll let you discover this book for yourself if you're interested. I guarantee you'll find it funny and you'll find the romance fabulous. I think it's fabulous because Anna and Etienne (who is British - love his Britishisms!) spend nearly the entire book as best friends. The plot is great, character development is great, dialogue is great, setting is fabulous, romance is well-developed. It has a lot going for it.

Plain Kate

I'd read good reviews of Plain Kate on Amazon and book blogs, but I just wasn't all that impressed. This is a children's book with a great message on prejudice and with a semi-historical anti-witch-burning feel to it, but it was just plain weird. I know it was a work of fiction/magic/fantasy, and I have read stranger things, but it didn't work for me. Too dark. I have nothing against the writing, I just don't think this is my kind of book. Granted, this book does have one character that almost makes the entire books worth the read: a talking cat. I'm not generally into silly, talking-animal sidekicks, but this cat had me laughing out loud. It almost makes up for the rest. But not quite.