July 25, 2014

Review: Blonde Ops

Blonde Ops By Charlotte Bernardo and Natalie Zaman
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

I've read two books set in Rome lately, and I can tell you that I vastly prefer BLONDE OPS.  It's a zippy novel about a hacker sent to live with a family friend in Italy for the summer who ends up interning at a fashion magazine edited by that family friend and getting involved in foiling a plot to kidnap the First Lady.

The first thing you should probably know is that the title is a lie.  Rebecca "Bec" Jackson has pink hair.  It's mentioned so often that, even though the title is cute, it started to bother me.

Second, there is a love triangle.  There's local bike messenger Dante (who has useful cousins all about Rome) and visiting fashion blogger Taj (who is also a hacker).  Both boys are very attractive, of course, and appreciate all the trouble that Bec manages to get herself into. 

Thirdly, BLONDE OPS is full speed ahead.  The characters beyond Bec don't get much development, but she is a firecracker.  She can't resist prodding her nose where it doesn't belong, and spotting something fishy just makes her more determined to get to the truth.  She's quite clever in how she goes about getting information, not just relying on her computer skills.  The focus is really on the zany plot, which combines the madness of getting a magazine published with protecting a political figure from a serious threat.  It isn't a serious book by any means, but co-authors Charlotte Bernardo and Natalie Zaman clearly know what kind of book they're writing.

BLONDE OPS will appeal to fans of Ally Carter who are looking for more books with a nosy heroine, cloak-and-dagger hijinks, and a cute boy willing to take a few risks himself.  There are a few hooks for a sequel, but this adventure stands on its own.

July 24, 2014

Review: Oliver and the Seawigs

Oliver and the Seawigs By Philip Reeve
Illustrations by Sarah McIntyre
Available now from Random House BFYR
Review copy

Philip Reeve's latest novel, OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS, is an interesting thing.  It's a bit more complex than a chapter book, but simpler than a middle grade novel.  It's heavily illustrated (almost every page!) but I wouldn't call it a graphic hybrid because there isn't use of sequential graphic scenes.  The illustrations enhance the story, especially a dual-page spread of the seawigs, but they never tell the story.

The eponymous Oliver is a young boy who travels the world (reluctantly) with his explorer parents.  One day he wakes up to find them missing.  It turns out he is on a Rambling Island, one that moved away while Mr. and Mrs. Crisp were exploring.  Oliver gets to know the island, called Cliff, and a near-sighted mermaid named Iris.  Together, the three try to create a magnificent seawig for Cliff.  The Rambling Islands have an annual competition for who can have the best seawig.  Unfortunately, a meaner island, populated by monkeys and a boy named Stacey de Lacey, doesn't plan to play fair.

It's a cute little book that will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman's FORTUNATELY THE MILK.  There are some really clever elements, such as how the island's guts work.  And even writing for a younger audience, Reeve knows how to turn a phrase.  OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS is independent reader friendly, but not too simple.

Sarah McIntyre's accompanying two-color art has clean lines, big eyes, and a surprising amount of detail.  The illustrations look extremely simple, but there are often parts of dense visual information.  I can see readers, especially young rereaders, getting a kick out of lingering over the illustrations.  (And all of the two-page spreads are just magnificent.)  I also recommend going to her site to download some activity sheets.

I think OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS is a fun adventure novel for young readers.  I'm definitely planning to share it with my niece, who is now reading on her own. 

July 23, 2014

Review: Like No Other

Like No Other By Una LaMarche
Available July 24 from Razorbill (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

The cover is a clear bid to convince ELEANOR AND PARK fans to pick up LIKE NO OTHER.  I think it's a smart move.  LIKE NO OTHER is a bittersweet book about a cross-cultural romance, written in an appealing and immediate style.  It is contemporary, although I can see the lettering making a potential reader think seventies.

Devorah is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights Brooklyn.  She's a good girl to friends, family, and teachers alike.  But when she sees her sister's light crushed after her marriage and meets Jaxon, she starts questioning the strict traditions that govern her life.  Jaxon is a somewhat nerdy Brooklynite of West Indian descent who can't believe he managed to hit it off with Devorah when they got stuck in an elevator together.  He's caught up in the first flush of love, and hurt that Devorah wants to keep him a secret.

I thought LIKE NO OTHER was a wonderful depiction of a young relationship and two teenagers' growing confidence in themselves and their desires.  But this book made me so mad (often in a good way).  I hated that Devorah had to risk being cut off from her community and her family, because so many of the rules she lives under are ridiculous.  Being accidentally alone with a man is a potential smirch on her honor.  Giving birth is unclean.  No dating before marriage.  I understand things like when a woman wants to dress modestly before God.  But this felt, because it is how Devorah felt, like she was being forced to dress modestly to prevent being a temptation.

Meanwhile, Jaxon kept making the dumbest romantic gestures.  He just wants to impress Devorah and reassure himself that she feels the same way, but he really never gets that Devorah could get disowned because of their relationship.  He forces her to take stupid risks, which really soured me on him.  I could accept the risks of the relationship not being equal for them, but I had trouble with him refusing to understand the gravity of the risks Devorah takes.  (Although, to be fair, in the end the relationship is quite risky for Jaxon.)

I thought that LIKE NO OTHER was a compelling look at Hasidic Judaism and a sweet, ultimately very realistic romance.  Una LaMarche's novel might've made me angry, but it's a powerful book that can make me feel so deeply.

July 22, 2014

Review: Extraction

Extraction First in a trilogy
By Stephanie Diaz
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

In the world of Kiel, people from the Surface are tested on their sixteenth birthdays to see whether they are worthy of living in the Core.  Maybe five people are picked per year.  Clementine is determined to make it, and to do well enough to convince the Core people to change their mind about Logan, her brilliant and strong boyfriend who happens to be disabled.  When she does make it to the Core, it is a struggle to fit in and excel.  Especially because the Core sees the Surface as an enemy, still.

I have to give it to Stephanie Diaz.  She does a good job of making the division between the Core, Surface, and other layers seem plausible.  The Surface people did revolt, and lost hard.  They're all killed off before they turn twenty, and a population of mostly children doesn't have much potential military force.  There's an acid rain that plagues the surface and also keeps them from becoming upwardly mobile.

EXTRACTION definitely has some narrative influence from the dystopian trend.  However, it does slot more into the rising science fiction trend as the story goes on.  There is much more to Clementine's world than there initially appears to be.  EXTRACTION also avoids the dreaded love triangle.  Any gestures towards it are mere feints, and the boy who would usually be the other leg of the triangle is not a mysterious bad boy but a petty, cruel villain with the merest shade of sympathetic backstory.

I thoroughly enjoyed EXTRACTION, even with the brutality of life on the Surface and the boot camp in the Core.  The romance between Logan and Clementine is both sweet and strong, two people who love each other deeply and have each other's backs.  I like that their love story was allowed to stand on its own.

And for those who aren't sold, I have one word: aliens.

July 21, 2014

Review: Second Star

Second Star By Alyssa B. Sheinmel
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan)
Review copy

I wrote earlier this year about how much I love stories based on Peter Pan.  Therefore, I was quite excited to see that Alyssa B. Sheinmel's newest book was a modern retelling.  In SECOND STAR, the Lost Boys are surfers, Hook is a drug dealer, and Wendy is searching for her twin brothers.  They went out in search of a wave and never came home.

SECOND STAR is not a very straightforward contemporary.  It is dreamy, possibly made up entirely by Wendy as she struggles to cope with her brothers' disappearance and apparent deaths.  She stumbles onto the cove where Pete lives almost by accident after seeing a picture of it.  The dreaminess only increases once drugs become involved.  (Wendy doesn't just take the known-to-be-highly-addictive drug, but things happen.)  I didn't find the "fairy dust" sequences entirely convincing.  It is very over the top in a Reefer Madness way, and seems like possibly the least fun drug ever.

The two romances were more convincing.  Wendy is romanced by both Pete and Jas (not always at the same time).  She's attracted to both charismatic boys, but can't trust either.  Pete teaches her to surf and seems sweet, but he has the possessive Belle hanging around and keeps secrets.  Jas seems sweet and caring, but he's a drug dealer, which is a huge negative in the people-to-get-involved-with column.  It doesn't hurt their pursuit that Wendy is feeling vulnerable.

The ending of SECOND STAR is quite ambiguous, fitting the imaginative mood of the novel.  I know what I think happened, but I like that it is open to interpretation.  This is not a straightforward retelling of Peter Pan with surfers, which is for the best.  Sheinmel takes the basic framework and throws in a friendship betrayed and a girl who just wants her family back.  She also ages up the material - SECOND STAR is definitely on the older end of YA.

I personally didn't love SECOND STAR, but it is a compelling beach read.


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