July 3, 2015

Review Update: Capture the Flag

Catch the Flag I've always been one to share the love of books, so if I read something I think someone else will like, I make sure to get a copy into their hands.  CATCH THE FLAG is one of my books I've given my younger cousins, and they told me that it is one of their favorites.

It's not entirely surprising.  This middle grade mystery is set in one of the Smithsonian buildings in Washington D.C., a place where they've spent plenty of time themselves.  Plus, Kate Messner is a skilled author who knows her way around writing an exciting action scene.

Now that you have a recommendation from two girls actually in the target age group, here's what I wrote my original review in 2012:

I choose to read CAPTURE THE FLAG because I needed a quick, easy read.  During a gala at the Smithsonian, the newly restored Star-Spangled Banner is stolen.  A blizzard shuts down the airport for a day, leaving the thieves stranded as well as holiday travelers.  Three children decide that they're going to discover the identity of the thieves.

Anna Revere-Hobbs, the ringleader, wants to be a reporter like her mother.  Henry Thorn wants to play his video games and not go home since his dad is remarrying and moving.  José McGilligan loves reading Harry Potter and collecting quotes.  All three of them, coincidentally, turn out to be children of a secret society protecting art.  CAPTURE THE FLAG ends with the possibility of more adventures for these three.

Not billed on the cover or flap and likely not returning is the even younger Sinan, an eight-year-old Pakistani boy accompanying his parents in the Sounds for the Small Planet symphony.  The three befriend him and become personally dedicated to finding the cause when the symphony is accused of stealing the flag.

The thieves are pretty obvious, but younger readers might fall for the red herring.  I expected CAPTURE THE FLAG to contain some history, which it does, but I was not expecting the subtle exploration of racism.  For example, it is not coincidental that a group of dark-skinned foreigners are used as the fall guys.

There are some fun set pieces where the kids crawl around the baggage area, but I don't think there's much in CAPTURE THE FLAG to interest older readers.  It's a good, timely read for young readers but too simple for a crossover audience.

July 2, 2015

Review: Ghosts of Shanghai

Ghosts of Shanghai First in a series
By Julian Sedgwick
Available now from Hachette Children's
Review copy

The beginning of GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI is rough.  I liked the description of Ruby and her friends catching a fox spirit, but then the story moves back and forth in time rapidly to catch the reader up to what they need to know about Ruby's history and what's coming next.  It's a rather choppy and disorienting beginning.  But then GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI begins to find its groove.

One of GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI's biggest strengths is the setting.  It is the 1920s, and the Qing Dynasty has passed but the People's Repulic of China is still on the horizon.  It's a time of great tension.  It's dangerous for Ruby, since she is foreign, although she has one advantage over her parents: she speaks Chinese.  It's dangerous for her two best friends, who are communists.  Then there's her other friend, whose family was killed by communists.  Violence is brewing even before you throw supernatural nasties into the mix.

Ruby and her friends like to hand out at the old White Cloud Temple, and they're the only ones who can see that something supernatural is happening.  But then a new caretaker comes to the temple and starts to teach them how to face these creatures, instead of relying on an old book with no context.  (A dangerous prospect, indeed.)

And then you throw some mobsters and a kidnapping into the mix.

I really enjoyed the density of the plot of GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI.  There's lots of juicy historical fiction details, including multiple corrupt governments clashing against each other.  There's also lots of great cultural details, including how people get treated differently based on how they're perceived.  Ruby is a bit too good at transcending some of those barriers, but she is the protagonist in a book.  I liked the mythological details too, which draw from Chinese stories and traditions.

I wish GHOSTS OF SHANGHAI had a smoother start, but it levels out into a layered treat.  I believe there are sequels to come, and I look forward to Ruby's future adventures in Shanghai.

July 1, 2015

Review: Anything Could Happen

Anything Could Happen By Will Walton
Available now from Push (Scholastic)
Review copy

Will Walton's debut novel ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN is sweet, if rather uneventful.  Tretch is closeted and deeply in love with his straight best friend, Matt.  Lots of people joke about them being gay, since Matt has two dads, and Tretch is torn about the fact that he secretly wishes it were true.

ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN is a terrific character study.  Tretch is a nice kid and it is heartening to see him grow confident in himself and open up to his family and friends (old and new).  I can see ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN being cathartic for teens struggling with the same issues that plague Tretch.  Do you tell someone you have a crush when you know they won't reciprocate?  Will your religious parents accept you?

There's potential for conflict in ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.  Beyond the issue of coming out (or not), Tretch has another secret: he loves to dance and choreographs dances to his favorite songs.  There's also Matt's new girlfriend, who Tretch feels jealous of.  Or there's the girl whose abrasiveness is hiding her crush on Tretch.  But everything comes to a head in a soft, gentle manner.  This is just a very soothing sort of book, the kind that tells you things will work out alright even when they seem dire at the time.

ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN is a pleasant read, with its optimistic realism.  It is not for those who are looking for an eventful, plotty book, but it is not without its charms.  Sometimes short and sweet gets the job done.

June 30, 2015

Interview with Miranda Kenneally

Jesse's Girl Miranda Kenneally is the author of JESSE'S GIRL, which comes out next Tuesday, July 7th.  I loved JESSE'S GIRL (my review), so I'm happy to share this brief interview with you.

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1. Your heroes and heroines all have varied, detailed interests. JESSE'S GIRL is set in the music industry, for instance. How much research do you do to get these aspects of your characters' lives right?

Breathe, Annie, Breathe Depends on the book. For RACING SAVANNAH, which is about horse racing, I did 3 months of intensive research before I even started writing the book. I spent time in Kentucky and read a ton of books about horse racing. I hung out in barns with horses and went to races. With JESSE'S GIRL, I felt like I knew enough about music to go ahead and start writing, but as I got more into the story, I consulted with a guitar expert and a girl who has her own band (like Maya) to confirm details. For BREATHE, ANNIE, BREATHE, about a girl training to run a marathon, I didn't do any research on running because I had already run one before. Research all depends on how much I already know.

2. The Hundred Oaks books are all loosely connected, so characters tend to reappear when it is logical to do something. How far in advance do you plan out their lives? For example, Sam and Jordan appear at age 24 in JESSE'S GIRL. Did you know where they'd end up when you finished CATCHING JORDAN?

Catching Jordan No, I haven't made any effort to plan their lives. I'm just keeping things loose and seeing who shows up and what they are up to. It's kind of fun to be in the dark. :) Teaser: I will say that I mention a character about 2 times in RACING SAVANNAH. Now I am writing a book about that random character's sister. i definitely didn't plan it. Just happened! This new book is coming out in 2016 and is loosely related to Racing Savannah.

3. With six books under your belt, you have a bit of experience. Which was the hardest novel to write? 

Racing SavannahJESSE'S GIRL! I seriously rewrote this book like 6 times. Considering I was doing the "girl meets famous guy" trope, I wanted to make sure Jesse and Maya were realistic and I had to make my story different from everything else out there. Also, writing a book where most of the action takes place on one day is super hard!

4. You've talked quite a bit on your blog about how much revision goes into your novels. Are there any bits you're particularly happy that you cut?

Yeah, actually. In the first draft of JESSE'S GIRL, I could tell Maya and Jesse had sizzling chemistry. It was hot! I actually had to tone it down so it wouldn't be too racy! Unfortunately, though, my first beta reader said, "This book will never sell because it's so cliche. Girl falls for famous boy: it's been done. So I did a draft in which Maya gets together with another dude, and she and Jesse just become best friends. It felt really forced, so I ended up going back to the version in which they are a couple.

5. If you could shadow a famous musician for a day, who would you pick? 

Justin Timberlake. Because duh!

June 29, 2015

Review: Trouble is a Friend of Mine

Trouble is a Friend of Mine By Stephanie Tromly
Available now from Kathy Dawson Books (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

TROUBLE IS A FRIEND OF MINE is an incredibly fitting title.  When Zoe Webster's parents divorce and she moves to a new town and school, her first new friend is the enigmatic Digby.  Digby gets her into all sorts of trouble, including the sort that convinces her to run back into an exploding building (and that ends up on her permanent record).

TROUBLE IS A FRIEND OF MINE is a very over-the-top book.  The personalities are large, the plot is fast paced, and the interweaving tales of sordid crime are told as a slapstick comedy.  It was perfect reading for waiting to get on a plane.  It was quick and funny and didn't take itself seriously, but the subject matter still got under my skin.

It helped that I really liked the characters.  Zoe is struggling to define who she is, especially now that she's living farther from her overbearing father and starting to realize that her spacey mother maybe isn't so oblivious.  (Hint to most teenagers: your parents probably are less oblivious than you think.)  Digby is the sort of person who only exists in books, but he works here.  I like how as the truth is uncovered, more and more of his actions make sense.  I also liked his former/current best friend Henry, who gets wrapped up into helping them and getting into trouble with them.  He makes for a nice contrast with Digby as the second male lead.  I thought the supporting cast worked well too, including the mean girl who goes along for the ride during the climax.

Zoe and Digby's search for a missing girl throws them into the path of a pervert, local (and not-so-local) drug dealers, rogue cops, a cult, and a flat-out bully.  It also livens up their night at the school dance quite a bit.  Pretty much all the trouble the teens get into is preposterous, but the characterization and neat plotting keep TROUBLE IS A FRIEND OF MINE clicking along.

I hope that Stephanie Tromly plans to write more of these three characters, although she does leave them in a good place.  Even if she doesn't, I'm sure her next book will also be a riot.

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