Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Title: Welcome to Night Vale (audiobook version)
Author: Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Publication Date: October 20, 2015
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from Back Cover)

Welcome to Night Vale... a friendly desert community where mysterious lights pass overhead. In this ordinary little town where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are commonplace parts of everyday life, the lives or two women, with two mysteries, are about to converge.

Like all of Night Vale, pawn shop proprietor Jackie Fierro abides by routine. But a crack appears when a mysterious man gives her a slip of paper marked by two words: KING CITY. Everything about the man unsettles her, especially the paper that she cannot remove from her hand. Yet when Jackie searches for the man, no one who meets him can seem to remember anything about him.

Diane Crayton's fifteen-year-old son, Josh, is moody and a shape shifter. Lately, Diane has started to see the boy's father everywhere she goes, looking the same as he did the day he left. Josh is growing ever more curious about his estranged father - leading to a disaster Diane can see coming but is helpless to prevent.

Propelled by two words - KING CITY - Diane's search to reconnect with her son and Jackie's search to reclaim her routine life draw them increasingly closer to one another, and to this place that may hold the key to their mysteries and their futures... if they can ever find it.

My Review

It is not often that I give a book 5 stars, so when a book like this come along that completely blows me away, I have no choice but to do so. 

There are 3 reasons why this book made such an impression on me.

First, the storytelling and the voice are perfect.

In order for you to understand the essence of this book, picture the following:
* the short, punchy, quirky language and the amazing blend of the real with the absurd of Kelly Link
* the omni narration, humor, satire, and word-building of Douglas Adams
* the creepiness and off-putting horror of Stephen King

Here is an excerpt illustrating the style I outlined above:

"Imagine teaching a fifteen-year-old how to drive a car with manual transmission. 

First, you have to press down the clutch. Then, you have to whisper a secret into one of the cup holders. In Diane's case, this was easy, as she was not a very social or public person and most any mundane thing in her life could be a secret.

In Josh's case, this was hard, because for teenagers, most every mundane thing in their lives is a secret that they do not like sharing in front of their parents.

Then, after the clutch and the secret, the driver has to grab the stick shift, which is a splintered wood stake wedged into the dashboard, and shake it until something happens. Anything really. And then simultaneously type a series of code numbers into a keyboard on the steering wheel.

All this while sunglasses-wearing agents from a vague yet menacing government agency sit in a heavily tinted black sedan across the street, taking pictures and occasionally waving.

This is a lot of pressure on a first-time driver."

This one passage alone shows the humor of the story, the way the strange and the normal blend together, a little piece of the world the characters live in and how seemingly simply described yet detailed it is, and just a touch of creepiness around the edges. I particularly love how the difficulty of a first-time driver driving a stick shift car is captured by exaggerating just how difficult it is. 

Second, the story is about real people with real problems that you can relate to, who coexist with the strangeness of the world in which they live. 

The story is really about three people with three very real problems:

Jackie Fierro, an eternally 19 year old woman who is kind of lost in her life. She's that in-between age where she's not a child but she's not quite an adult, and she's struggling to find meaning in her life. She has literally chosen to remain a 19-year-old for a long time. It's unclear just how long, but the length of time isn't important. The fact that she's chosen to remain frozen at that age is important, because let's face it. When you were that age, did you really want to grow up and go out into the world to find your way? If you were anything like me, probably not. You were content to just be, to fall into your routine, whatever that might've been at the time, and hope that adulthood could be delayed as long as possible.

Josh Crayton, a fifteen-year-old boy who is struggling with his identity. There's a great metaphor applied to Josh in this story, where he literally changes physical form every day to reflect his ever changing life. Teens tend to try on this personality and that personality, not knowing exactly who there are or where they fit in the world. They can also be different people depending on who they're around. Josh tends to be one thing in front of his mother but something else entirely in front of someone else. Part of Josh's search for his identity extends to his search for his father, who disappeared when he was younger.

Finally, you have Diane Crayton, a single mother to Josh, who is struggling to discover and rediscover her relationship with her ever changing (literally and figuratively) son. She captures the pain of parenthood during a child's teenaged years perfectly. She tries to maintain that mother-son bond at the same time she has to begin to let her son go as he approaches adulthood. She also struggles with protecting her son from being exposed to his father, like most single parents probably do when the other parent chooses to be absent in a child's life. Another great metaphor - in the story, more and more versions of Josh's father show up, making it increasingly difficult for Diane to stop the inevitable meeting between Josh and his father.  

Just as an aside, this line in the story summarizes beautifully the love between mother and son, and it's heartfelt and insightful lines like this in the book that amaze me and make me realize there is a lot more going on here than just a strange, absurd romp through the world of Night Vale:

"Josh loved his mother, but he did not know why. Diane loved her son, and she did not care why."

Finally, the book is a perfect complement to the bi-monthly podcast Welcome to Night Vale, also written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. While it is not necessary to listen to the podcast to enjoy this book, I was thrilled to be able to explore aspects of the town of Night Vale through this book that as a listener of the podcast I don't get to see. Places like the Night Vale Public Library (and the malevolent librarians therein), Old Woman Josie's house out by the old car lot (and the angels therein, which really exist, even though it is illegal to admit they do), and Carlos's science lab. They're all written in vivid detail. 

As an extra bonus, because I listened to the audio book, I got to hear the story narrated by the voice of the Welcome to Night Vale podcasts, Cecil Baldwin, who plays the character of Cecil Palmer, the Night Value public radio announcer in the podcasts and the novel.  

Welcome to Night Vale podcasts - how to describe them? Picture listening to a public community radio program, but hearing about the strange goings-on of a town where every crackpot conspiracy theory you've ever heard is true and coexist. You'll hear news reports about strange lights that pass overhead, ghosts, aliens, angels, agents from a vague yet menacing government agency, and five-headed dragons running for town mayor. And those are just the more normal topics I could pick off the top of my head.

Back to the narration - Cecil Baldwin does such an incredible job narrating the radio podcast that I couldn't imagine anyone else ever narrating the book, so as soon as I discovered he was the audio book narrator, there was no other option for me but to experience the audio book as opposed to reading the hard cover. The story in the novel is periodically interrupted by excerpts of radio broadcasts from the Welcome to Night Vale radio show, so it was like having some extra podcast listening experiences thrown in.

And there you have it. 5 star book. Hands down. Go read it. You won't regret it!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review: The Man with the Glass Heart by Shelly Reuben

Title: The Man with the Glass Heart
Author: Shelly Reuben
Publication Date: December 1, 2012
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Not since The Little Prince fell in love with a rose has a book captured the magic of a world where love longs for what it cannot have, recovers what it has lost, and the unimaginable flutters with luminescent wings out of crystal caves. Panache, an exuberant road gypsy, is on her way to the mountains. Benjamin Pencil, The Man With The Glass Heart, has no use for mountains. But their paths cross, their lives intertwine, and Benjamin follows her up, up, up, to where hills are smothered in poppies and a man can reach out and write his name in the sky. As they travel, they first encounter the beautiful but predatory Woman with the Breeding, a collector of hearts who tries to add Benjamin's exquisite heart to her pitiable hoard; the malicious Man who Laughs, who lives only to create fear and kill dreams; and unpredictably Panache's iconoclastic, unreliable, and utterly irresistible father. Papa plays his saxophone with the same wild abandon with which he lives his life, and cautions Panache that if the mountains are in a man, he will go there ... and that mountains are in the man with the glass heart. It is in those mountains that they meet the melodious laughing bird. Melody, with her irresistible song and aquamarine eyes, lures Benjamin to an Arabian Nights world where hypnotizing creatures dance and sing late into the night. At what peril does Benjamin Pencil follow the melodious laughing bird? To what end? Can real hearts be broken? Is a shattered heart the end of all love? Or can it be a new beginning?

My Review

This book was acquired from Book Expo America 2013. Many thanks to BEA and to the author for the opportunity to review it.

This book is toted as an adult fable.  And it's easy to see tons of symbolism in the story. But the story itself, before going into that symbolism, exists well enough on its own. Shelly Reuben has created a very vividly imagined story of a kind of fantasy world, with modern touches. 

The story has a very medieval feel to it, with characters traversing the landscape on foot, majestic mountain landscapes, and small towns that feel like something right out of J. R. Tolkien's works.  There is also magic involved. There is a character who is a collector of hearts, where the hearts are physically taken from their owners. There is also another character who appears and disappears like some type of magician and a harbinger of doom, as well as the Melodious Bird" which is almost human in its mannerisms. This is, of course, because these characters are symbols purposefully created by the author, but ignoring that, they give the story a fantasy element.

And yet there are characters, such as the main character Panache's father, who is an obviously modern musician who plays the saxophone. It is a testament to the skill of the author who successfully marries these modern touches with the old-school landscape to make it all work together.

On the surface, the story is about Panache, who wants nothing more than to explore the world around her like her gypsy father, who comes and goes as he pleases, playing his music with reckless abandon. Then she meets Benjamin Pencil, the Man with the Glass Heart, and for all intents and purposes, even though she doesn't know it at the time, she falls in love with him, with his innocence and genuine nature. The story is a journey that these two embark on together, where they come across many physical challenges and grow closer together, then apart, and ultimately... well, no spoilers, right? Lol.

But there is another layer to this story. Because this is really an allegory, where the different characters represent many of the trials and tribulations of the person (in this case, Benjamin Pencil) who starts off with an innocent and "good" heart. There are those who would seek to keep that heart for themselves, not to cherish it but to add to their "collection" of claimed hearts. Like trophy boyfriends/husbands, if you will. There is the perilous mountain climb Benjamin Pencil makes with his glass heart in his little wagon, representative of the cruel world out there that would do his heart harm... or not, depending on how well he protects his true nature. And so on. (I don't want to give away all the symbolism, after all. I do have my theories about the character of the Melodious Bird that I'd love to discuss with the author someday.)

Both of these aspects of the story are woven together to create a magical tale that I feel people can relate to if they wish to look below the surface. Or readers can just enjoy a magical story about a woman who falls in love with the impossible Man with the Glass Heart and how their relationship fares while traversing the fantastical and sometimes treacherous world in which they live, and how the two of them change in the process. Can Benjamin Pencil grow to be more daring even while still protecting his glass heart? Can Panache grow to let go of some of her own freedom to care for someone else? Can they both survive those who would do them ill will?

My recommendation? Read this story and find out for yourself! :-)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard

Title: Watch the Sky
Author: Kirsten Hubbard
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Target Age Group: MG
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (from inside cover)

Jory's stepfather, Caleb, says: Red leaves in the springtime. Pages torn from a library book. All the fish in an aquarium facing the same way. A cracked egg with twin yolks. Everywhere and anywhere. And because of them Jory's life is far from ordinary. He must follow a very specific set of rules: don't trust anyone outside the family, have your work boots at the ready just in case, and always, always watch out for the signs. The end is coming, and they must be prepared.

School is Jory's only escape from Caleb's tight grasp, and with the help of new friends Jory begins to explore a world beyond his family's farm. As Jory's friendships grow, Caleb notifies Jory's mother and siblings that the time has come for final preparations.

They begin and exhausting schedule, digging a mysterious tunnel in anticipation of the disaster. But as the hole gets deeper, so does the family's doubt about whether Caleb's prophesy is true. When the stark reality of his stepfather's plans becomes clear, Jory must choose between living his own life or following Caleb, shutting his eyes to the bright world he's just begun to see.

My Review

This book was acquired from Book Expo America 2015. Many thanks to BEA and to the author for the opportunity to review it.

This book was endlessly fascinating to read. The feeling I got while reading it was probably much similar to Jory's as the story progresses. Jory's family is digging a shelter to survive some coming catastrophe his stepfather insists is coming, and yet I felt much like Jory did - claustrophobic. Especially because, in contrast to what Caleb suggests is the best practice, to keep to themselves, not attract attention, and to trust no one, Jory begins to reach out to others and discovers that the rest of the world is not as scary as Caleb portrays it to be. Jory begins to LIVE for the first time in his life, and it makes his life at home (and my feelings as a reader) even more claustrophobic as the "end" that Caleb describes comes closer. 

This story is more like a psychological suspense/thriller than anything else, which I don't see often in MG fiction. It's not necessarily the crisis that's the main issue in this book, although it's the dark cloud that hangs over Jory's head that makes up part of the actual conflict. It took me a while to realize this: The theme of "Is it really worth living your life in fear and to be safe than it is to live your life to the fullest?" that's the main conflict in the story. It's the battle in Jory's brain - live in fear or live your life. The physical manifestation of the "live in fear and be safe" is Caleb, and on the other side are Jory's new school friends, who are the "live your life to the fullest" manifestations.

The wild card in the story is Jory's sister Kit, who I find most fascinating of all the characters in the story. She represents both sides of Jory's internal struggle. Her appearance is very mysterious. She appeared one day out of nowhere in the family pumpkin patch. Her very existence suggests that Caleb's views may be true - there are truly signs that warn of some coming disaster. And yet, Kit is different than everyone else in the family. She enjoys life to the fullest, even inside the artificial boundaries of Caleb's artificial world he's built around the family. She challenges Jory to see outside that world as well, and I'd venture that she's really the first catalyst that pushes Jory to realize there's a whole life out there to live outside his current life of fear and preparation. One of Caleb's warnings - to watch the sky for trouble - Kit takes and turns on its head. She makes Jory see the wonders in the sky, so that Jory both simultaneous fears AND is fascinated by them.

My recommendation: Excellent read. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl by Paige McKenzie

Title: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl
Author: Paige McKenzie, Nick Hagen, and Alyssa Sheinmel
Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Target Age Group: YA
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, Sunshine Griffith and her mother, Kat, move from sunny Austin, Texas, to the rain-drenched town of Ridgemont, Washington. Though Sunshine is adopted, she and her mother have always been close, sharing a special bond filled with laughter and inside jokes. But from the moment they arrive, Sunshine feels her world darken with an eeriness she cannot place. And even if Kat doesn't recognize it, Sunshine knows that something about their new house is just... creepy.

On their first night in Ridgemont, Sunshine is awakened by the sound of footsteps coming from above, followed by a child's ghostly laughter. In the days that follow, things just get more frightening. But Kat seems oblivious to the terror, insisting that Sunshine's imagination is getting the best of her. Determined to prove her mother wrong, Sunshine begins taking photographs, desperate to catch evidence of the supernatural presence. At her new school, Sunshine meets Nolan Porter, a cute - if slightly bookish - classmate. Nolan also has a passion for photography - and, more importantly, for ghosts. He offers to help Sunshine figure out exactly what's going on.

What they uncover is a story that's much bigger and runs deeper than they could have imagined. She can hardly believe it, but as the spirits haunting her house become stranger - and it becomes clear that Kat is in danger - Sunshine learns that everything she thought she knew about her past has been wrong.

My Review

This is a newly acquired book from Book Expo America 2015 book. Many thanks to BEA and to the authors for the opportunity to review it before its release.

First, before I get into the book review, I just wanted to say it was awesome meeting Paige McKenzie at BEA 2015 this year, not only because she's co-written an amazing story - with Alyssa Sheinmel and Nick Hagen - but she was probably the most enthusiastic new writer I've ever seen at BEA. I wish her loads more success in her career.

This book is yet another great, creepy story I've acquired at BEA this year. For that reason alone, I love this book.

At first glance, this book may seem like another run-of-the-mill ghost story. And on the surface, it is. Girl moves into a house, house is haunted, girl can see ghosts. Probably been done loads of times. Yet, it hasn't. This book seems to take these old tropes and create something new with it. A new mythology involving ghosts and their goings-on after they've left the land of the living. Paige McKenzie and company have created a bunch of rules for this particular ghost world, and they're pretty cool. They've also created a new mythology for the main character, Sunshine, and her ghostly powers that involve communicating with, and assisting, the dead.

One of the biggest stand-out features of this book is the use of water. Sunshine moves from sunny Austin, Texas, to the gloomy climate of Ridgemont, Washington, where it always seems to be raining. As events get stranger and more menacing for Sunshine in her new home, the water level in her life starts to figuratively, and literally, rise. Great symbolism, since water can be symbolic of death, or of formless things (i.e. ghosts). 

Water may also symbolize change, which is another recurring theme of the story. Sunshine's life is in the midst of change. Everything she knows about her life is turned on its head by the end of the story. She's suddenly unsure about her relationship with her mother, her surroundings, her history, and even who to trust around her, whether living or dead.

To me (and maybe I'm reading too much into this), this story also seems to be a great analogy of a child and a parent and how they can lose their way during a child's teenaged years. Kat, Sunshine's mother, begins to act strangely after they've moved into their new house, and yes, there's a supernatural element behind all of it, but it also illustrates how teenagers and their parents often seem to get disconnected. For that reason, this book is also a great coming-of-age type of story, in its own weird, spooky way. 

I could go on, but I'll let you readers see for yourselves how great this book is. Pick this one up, especially all you lovers of supernatural YA. You won't regret it!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Title: The Nest
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Target Age Group: YA
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

Steve just wants to save his baby brother—but what will he lose in the bargain? This is a haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline, from acclaimed author Kenneth Oppel (Silverwing, The Boundless) with illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

My Review

This is a newly acquired book from Book Expo America 2015 book. Many thanks to BEA and to Kenneth Oppel for the opportunity to review it before its release.

I have a weakness for really creepy books that crawl right into your mind and haunt it. This, dear readers, is just that type of book.

Steve's new baby brother is very sick, and all he wants is for him to get better. Not only because it's his brother, but for other selfish reasons. Steve is portrayed as a very real boy with real emotions concerning a very real problem. His parents are spending all their time with the baby and not enough on him. 

Then some very cool, unreal elements come into the story. "Angels" appear and say they can make the baby all better, and Steve agrees to let them help. Who wouldn't jump at that opportunity? The angels appeal to Steve, not only because they will help his baby brother, but also because they can help him as well. Steve's parents will be able to spend more time with him instead of worrying about the baby. And, oh by the way, they can make Steve better too, because he's a very anxious boy with OCD. He's "broken", like the baby, but the angels say they can fix him too.

At the same time all this is going on, there's a giant wasp nest growing outside Steve's house, and as it gets closer to the time the angels promise the baby will be all "fixed", the nest grows and grows. And the truth of what these angels have in mind grows more and more apparent, and frightening. 

Not only is this a really cool and creepy story, but there are a lot of very complex, philosophical questions addressed in this book concerning both physical and mental illnesses and how they should be handled. The book works on different levels for this reason. I guarantee both those philosophical questions and the creepiness will take up residence in your head by the end of the story.

I highly recommend reading this book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Call Me Amy by Marcia Strykowski

Title: Call Me Amy
Author: Marcia Strykowski
Publication Date: May 1, 2013
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
My Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

For Amy Henderson, 1973 has been a lonely year of so many awkward moments she's actually lost count. Things turn around quickly when she assists in the rescue of an injured seal pup. To help save Pup, she forms an unlikely alliance with a questionable boy in a worn-out army jacket, as well as a peculiar older woman the kids in town refer to as "Old Coot."

Amy soon finds that people aren't always what they seem, as she nurtures Pup back to health with the help of her two new companions, Craig and Miss Cogshell. Unexpected detours occur as an ill-intentioned harbormaster hunts down Pup and a group of nosy popular girls set their affections on Craig.

As if these weren't obstacles enough, an even graver challenge presents itself soon thereafter, threatening the future of the entire town--and Amy's life as well.

My Review

This is a Book Expo America 2013 book. Many thanks!

This book tricked me. First, I wasn't sure if I'd even be interested in it based on its description. Anyone who knows me knows it's not my typical reading fare. Also, when I first started reading it, I found very common themes about the main character's sister who was the popular one and the one who the parents doted on while the main character was all but invisible. Also, there was lots of what I considered over the top description and dropped references to let the reader know what time period the story took place in. Craig didn't seem very developed, and neither did Miss Cogshell, although she was very vividly drawn.

And then something changed.

As the three characters came together in the midst of taking care of an injured seal pup, suddenly they all became alive in my mind. The interactions between the three of them caused each of them to open up to the others, and suddenly I began really caring about these characters. I learned each had a history of their own, that each had their own problems, and that each could help the others cope with theirs. By the end of the book, I was totally invested in all of them, especially during tragic events that I of course can't reveal (spoilers you know). 

For those people looking for an action-filled adventure, there's very little of that to be found in this book. For those that like a slow build, however, and a warm-hearted story, then this may be the right book for you. It turns out it was the right one for me as well.

I would definitely recommend this one.