April 23, 2014

Review: In the Shadows

In the Shadows By Kiersten White
Art story by Jim Di Bartolo
Available April 29, 2014 from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read my review of Mind Games

You might wonder what this book is about, since the title is super bland and the cover features pretty colors, but little other detail.   Then, by design, it's a little hard to figure out what it's about once you start reading.  There are plucky children and zombies and mysterious meetings, and it all ties together in the end in a cathartic, rewarding ending.

Jim Di Bartolo is an artist probably known by most for his work in his wife Laini Taylor's novel LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES.  He conceived of IN THE SHADOWS and created somewhere around half of the finished work.  His half of the book is a wordless graphic novel following a young man with a distinctive scar through the years.  Since there are no words, the reader must piece together who the man, his enemies, and his goals are for themselves.  The art is beautiful and full of little details that are quite rewarding upon a reread.  (After I finished IN THE SHADOWS, I went back though the graphic novel sections only.)

Kiersten White's half of the book is a prose novel following a pair of sisters, a pair of brothers, and a mysterious orphan boy.  They come together partially because they're the only young people in the boarding house, but they stick together after they witness a suicide-that-didn't-happen and seek to figure out what in the world happened.  I loved the feel of White's prose, which had a nostalgia to it.  As events got creepier, it still felt like the characters' world was constantly bathed in golden sunlight.  It made an interesting contrast to the increasingly modern graphic novel interludes, and made me question by perception of when the prose events where happening in relation to the graphic novel events.

I loved how much IN THE SHADOWS prompted me to use my mind.  It is an easy read in many ways.  Di Bartolo's sections have no words, White's could come from a middle grade novel.  But the connections between events and characters are obscured.  One half of my mind was unraveling the mystery with Minnie, Cora, Thomas, Charles, and Arthur, and the other half was unraveling the mystery of the boy with the scar, and both halves exclaimed every time they recognized a green necklace or a man with a beard.

IN THE SHADOWS is a bold, inventive work that will delights fantasy fans.  It's dark, clever, and a brilliant mix of conventional and unconventional storytelling, right down to the two endings.  Life and death are perennial themes of literature, and White and Di Bartolo speak of them beautifully.

April 22, 2014

Review: The Taking

The Taking First in a series
By Kimberly Derting
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy
Read my interview with Kimberly and my review of The Body Finder

THE TAKING presents a classic sort of sci-fi mystery, the type that might show up in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. Kyra Agnew argues with her father on the way home from a softball game, gets out of the car, sees a light, and disappears for five years.  When she gets back, she remembers nothing and appears to be the exact same age as when she left.  At first, THE TAKING seems to be about Kyra's difficulties rebuilding a life that has moved on without her.  But Kyra might not be the exact same as when she left, and a suspicious government agent is snooping around.

THE TAKING scratched the same itch for me as Malinda Lo's recent duology ADAPTATION and INHERITANCE.  There's government conspiracies, missing memories, strange new abilities, and possible aliens.  I love this sort of science fiction, where something unexplained has happened and the characters have to figure out the new rules of their universe before they can act effectively.

However, THE TAKING also has the weakness of ADAPTATION: there is a lot of setup.  The payoff is learning what happened to Kyra.  But that knowledge is left for later books in the series.  The events of THE TAKING are interesting, but the book ends without providing answers for the many questions that arise during the story.

Normally, I like at least a little resolution in the first book in a series.  And, to be fair, there is some.  For a moment I thought several characters' fates would be left in the balance, but that is not the case.  However, THE TAKING still worked for me because the atmosphere drew me in so tightly and I am so curious about Kyra's fate. 

I am not thrilled that she's super special even among the people who have disappeared.  I am thrilled that she's an angry teenager who doesn't immediately warm up to her new brother or to her best friend and boyfriend who got together in their shared trauma over Kyra's disappearance.  Kyra's better side comes out around Tyler, her former boyfriend's brother who is now the right age for her.  It veered close to insta-love, but Tyler had an old childhood crush on her and provides Kyra the unquestioning support she needs but isn't getting from anyone else.

I was sucked in by THE TAKING and couldn't put it down once I started.  At the same time, I feel like I can't truly review THE TAKING until I read more and see how all this setup play out.  I have a good feeling though, because THE TAKING is a promising beginning.

April 21, 2014

Review: The Here and Now

The Here and Now By Ann Brashares
Available now from Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Ann Brashares returns to YA with a novel that blends time travel, romance, and social issues together.  It's well timed - her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants novels are still well known, but old enough that no one is likely disappointed by Brashares exploring a different genre.  Her contemporary fans shouldn't worry though, because Brashares does very little with the time travel conceit.

Prenna and her mother live with a group of time travelers who all escaped a world devastated by a mosquito-borne plague.  They live under strict rules to keep from being discovered or from changing the future.  I never quite got why the community goes along with this.  Who would suddenly jump to the conclusion that they're from the future?  Why wouldn't they change the future?  Surely anything is better than 90% or so of the human race dying.  And, well, it's revealed in the first chapter or so that the community leaders killed a fourteen-year-old kid because he wasn't good enough at following the rules.  Anyone who thinks killing a fourteen-year old whose only crime is being to talkative is the answer is not a leader that should be followed.  Oddly, Prenna seems to be the only one who is really discontented.  Her best friend kind of goes along with her, but has no personal motivation.

When Prenna starts to truly become friends with Ethan, who isn't a time traveler, she suddenly becomes a figure of suspicion.  But Ethan helps Prenna dig deeper into her now, to ask questions about the rules she follows and what else she could do with her life.  The first two-thirds of the book remind me more of GATED or other books about characters escaping cults than other time travel novels.

I enjoyed THE HERE AND NOW for what it was.  It's a teen romance that encourages questioning your beliefs and being proactive about your future.  There's a nice environmental message.  It's an easy read and entirely unobjectional.  But if you're looking for time travel hijinks, you'll be disappointed.  For instance, no one actually time travels during the course of the novel.  THE HERE AND NOW is a fine beach read, nothing mind blowing.

April 20, 2014

Review: The Recruit

The RecruitThe Recruit Book one of the Cherub series
By Robert Muchamore
Available now from Simon Pulse (US) and Hodder (UK)
Review copy

I enjoy stories about child spies, like Alex Rider or the Gallagher Girls or Jimmy Coates.  Cherub is a popular series from the United Kingdom, now being re-released with updated covers.  I believe THE RECRUIT first came out in 2004, which meant it looked pretty dated.  I missed hearing about this series when it first came out, but when the re-release came to my attention, I wanted to give this spy series a shot.

James Adams is heading towards jail.  He's got an anger problem, and after his mom dies, he starts hanging out with the wrong kids at the orphanage.  It's just small marks on his record now, but he's sure to eventually do something that'll really get him in over his head.  But there's no reason to write him off.  He has potential.  And a secret agency known as CHERUB notices.

CHERUB uses children as spies, because adults so rarely suspect kids.  They can enter homes unsuspected, as friends of a mark's children, or pretend to be harmless vandals.  It's the perfect opportunity for James.

I liked that THE RECRUIT explored the lives of kids who aren't often protagonists, especially in children's literature.  James has lots of rough edges.  I also liked that it tackled difficult topics, and didn't reduce complicated issues to black and white stances.  After James completes his first mission, he isn't entirely sure that things worked out for the best, since no one involved was entirely good or bad.  I didn't enjoy how much time was spent on boot camp.  I would've eaten up as a kid, but found it a bit distressing to read about a kid going through something that is hard on adults.

I think that THE RECRUIT could be read by younger readers - nine or so.  The language isn't overly difficult, and it's very engaging.  However, the subject matter (including terrorism, underage drinking, and drugs) probably bumps up the intended age of the reader.  For concerned parents, I think that everything is presented in an age appropriate way and not in a favorable light. 

THE RECRUIT was a fun, fast novel, but I don't think I'll keep reading the series.  It skews a bit too young for me.

April 18, 2014

Review: The Forever Song

The Forever Song Book three of the Blood of Eden trilogy
By Julie Kagawa
Available now from Harlequin Teen
Review copy
Read my reviews of The Eternity Cure, The Iron Daughter, and Grim

Julie Kagawa brings her Blood of Eden trilogy to a fitting conclusion, full of action, grief, love, and sacrifice.  Somehow, when I started the book, I thought Kagawa would instantly find a loophole to make the ending of THE ETERNITY CURE all better.  But she doesn't, and heroine Allie has give up struggling with her vampiric nature in her despair.

Allie, along with her mentor Kanin and brother Jackal, are traveling to stop mad vampire Sarren before he can make it to Eden and unleash a virus to kill all humans and vampires.  Unfortunately for them, Sarren is mad like a fox.  I truly enjoy the quasi-familial relationship that the three share, so it was nice to spend quite a bit of time with them on their journey.  It's also interesting to see how three people can pursue the same course while motivated for such different reasons.

I really didn't like Kagawa's faerie series (I quit halfway through the second book), so it's kind of amazing to me how much I loved this trilogy.  I thought it mixed post-apocalyptic fiction with vampire lore very well, creating something that played with the tropes of both without being the same old same old.  The strong characterization and relationships are also a highlight.  The romance is front and center (this is a Harlequin imprint), but it's certainly not the only relationship explored.

I definitely would read THE IMMORTAL RULES and THE ETERNITY CURE before diving into THE FOREVER SONG.  It doesn't spend any time explaining what is happening to new readers.  It is entirely focused on moving the story forward to the conclusion.  I think this trilogy finishes strong, for those who have been waiting for the reaction to the final book to start.  The science is terrible, but I can forgive that in a vampire book.  Especially in a vampire road-trip trilogy.


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