Monday, 21 April 2014

review: She Is Not Invisible

by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Book Press, April 22 2014
young adult contemporary
ARC received via publisher (thank you!)

Summary (from Goodreads):
Laureth Peak's father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers--a skill at which she's remarkably talented. Her secret: She is blind. But when her father goes missing, Laureth and her 7-year-old brother Benjamin are thrust into a mystery that takes them to New York City where surviving will take all her skill at spotting the amazing, shocking, and sometimes dangerous connections in a world full of darkness.
The cover:

It has a modern feel to it, due to the three different sans serif fonts used and the sun flare effect used to represent Laureth's blindness. Don't know how effective the overlay of a semi-transparent girl's face on top of a city is, but at least it makes it stand out.

The book:

Oh, now this is the kind of book all YA contemporaries should aspire to be. You wouldn't guess it from the beginning, which is a little rocky; flashbacks spot the first few chapters. But Laureth's disability, her blindness, is evident in her worldview, and the way she interacts with her surroundings and other people is an enlightening experience for abled readers such as myself. It's obviously hard for me to judge how accurate Sedgwick represented the blind way of life, but I would say he managed to make it a part of our protagonist's character without turning this book into an "issue" book. And when you see the challenges Laureth faces, the snubs from sighted people, the miscommunications that are just crushing, it's impossible not to empathize with her.

She Is Not Invisible is somewhat unique in that there are about one or two secondary characters, not including the antagonists who really only show up in the latter third of the book. But Sedgwick makes both of those characters — Laureth's brother, Benjamin, and a boy they meet in NYC, Michael Walker — count. Benjamin is an authentic-to-the-core seven-year-old, complete with a stuffed Raven named Stan, and he becomes incredibly important to the storyline by virtue of the fact that he is so important to Laureth. And then there's Michael. Oh my gosh, when was the last time a YA novel had such an amazing twelve-year-old? He speaks like an adult and yet is somehow stunningly adorable when his soft, happy side peeks out; his characterization is truly excellent.

Which is all a good thing, because the plot is wobbly. The author spends almost the entirety of the book sending Laureth and Benjamin around New York City searching for clues, while being beseiged by coincidences and information relating to their missing father. But though this thematic aspect seems vaguely interesting, enough to keep one reading through all the random notes that somewhat resemble info-dumps, the climax is completely action-oriented — and then the dénouement basically gives up on making this theme into anything meaningful, and hurries the storyline into a neat ending. It's a little bewildering.

Yet somehow, Sedgwick still manages to wrap up his last few pages with lovely, emotions-infused writing that brings every feel-good heartstring you have into tune. It's got something to do with the characters, something to do with the way that a contemporary can get away with having almost no plot but still resonate deeply as long as those characters are genuine. I don't quite understand it myself... but even though objectively the plot is wonky, I still loved reading She Is Not Invisible.

Ethnic balance: 2.5 out of 5. Laureth sort of ducks out of discussing Michael's race by saying that she doesn't "see" race. This is literal, but it would've been nice to examine how Sedgwick subverts the "uneducated black guy" trope in the character of Michael by having the characters reflect on it.

Rating: 4.3 out of 5

Thursday, 3 April 2014

review: Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage

by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith
Quirk Books, February 4 2014
middle-grade contemporary
review copy received via publisher (thank you!)

After solving a kidnapping, Nick and Tesla's summer hasn't calmed down just yet: their friend Silas's father just got robbed, and without the valuable comic that was stolen the family shop might go under. Then robberies start springing up around town, with the only suspects being a series of robots that are coming from the new owner of a shop... who their Uncle Newt just happens to be in love with!
The cover:

Whoever came up with the base design for this series is a genius. The blocking of "Nick and Tesla's" above the title makes it easy to swap out the new title for each book in the series, and the small details (the eyes in "Robot", the coloured rectangles to the right of the title, the gears) make this cover wonderfully easy on the eyes. Then, of course, there's the actual illustration: an excellent sense of movement draws our attention to our protagonists in the centre.

The book:

This sequel to Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab (which I also reviewed) is almost entirely an all-around improvement — which is something, considering I rated the first a 4.3 out of five. The humour is perhaps the standout: ramped up somehow, intangibly, there are a lot of funny situations and conversations which Nick and Tesla find themselves in, and the authors don't hesitate to use the most prominent adult, their Uncle Newt, for comic relief.
"You're just trying to provoke me," Nick said. "You know I'm just as good with electronics are you."
"Oh? How much you wanna bet?"
Tesla gave her brother a hard, challenging stare.
He was right about her trying to provoke him. But that didn't matter.
Because it still worked.
"How about five million dollars?" Nick said.
Tesla shook her brother's hand.
"It's on, dude," she said.
(p. 36)
A stylistic choice that separates this book from the first is the time spent in Nick's head; that is to say, the omniscient point-of-view is scaled back in favour of a more limited-third-person perspective in the form of Nick's thoughts. This is somewhat disappointing, given that Tesla's the only girl in the group of four friends (Nick, Tesla, Silas and DeMarco); it'll be interesting to see whether they move further into Nick's head in the next book, or switch to Tesla, or perhaps revert to omniscient. Nevertheless, both of our main characters feel authentic, and the strongest instances of characterization occur when their contrasts to each other are highlighted.

Once again, the secondary characters are beautifully developed: Silas and DeMarco get into plenty of trouble with Nick and Tesla, and their respective responses to each situation makes for humour and also insight into their characters. The adults involved are portrayed with efficient strokes (Angela, for example, needs only one page to establish her loquacity), and the introduction of new character Hiroko Sakurai is a positive for both drawing out another shade of Uncle Newt's character and also boosting the diversity in this book.

The propulsion of the plot renders it very quick-paced, yet still makes time for the series's larger arc involving the mystery of their parents' job and disappearance. Though there isn't much of a lead-up tension-wise to the climax, the plot twist ties into the final action scene nicely, and a last mysterious phone call pulls readers closer to the overarching mystery and the next book.

And of course, the science experiments! This time they're robot-themed, very diverse in scope and as before, well-integrated in the story. In fact, I continue to be awed by the way a concept book like this can integrate the story and the DIY part so well. At this point it's unsure how many books there'll be in this series, but from a reader's standpoint there isn't any reason to slow down yet. Full steam ahead with this delightful, original MG series.

Ethnic balance: 3 out of 5. Added one WOC, but she plays a major role, so I'll bump up the rating 1 whole mark.

Rating: 4.4 out of 5

Sunday, 23 March 2014

review: The Mark of the Dragonfly

by Jaleigh Johnson
Delacorte Press, March 25 2014
middle-grade fantasy/steampunk
ARC received via publisher

Summary (from Goodreads):
Piper has never seen the Mark of the Dragonfly until she finds a girl amid a caravan wreckage in the Meteor Fields. Anna doesn't remember a thing about her life, but the tattoo on her arm is proof that she's from the Dragonfly Territories and thus protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home. The one sure way to the Territories is the 401 train, but stowing away is a difficult prospect—getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible... Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can survive the journey.
The cover:

It is so, so static. The ARC's back cover features a much more interesting illustration featuring the three main characters in motion on the important 401, and one wonders why the designers instead went with a boringly symmetrical symbol which has no hint of uniqueness to it, along with a standard sans-serif all-caps font only slightly re-arranged.

The book:

The writing in this book is rather sub-par, and this is evident from the first few pages. Jaleigh Johnson tells rather than shows often ("Piper was too tired and worried to deal with this mess." p. 43) and stuffs world-building exposition into her dialogue throughout the book, so that her characters give half-page speeches on technology, races and politics. This problem exacerbates the unrealistic dialogue Johnson occasionally places in the mouth of her protagonist; in Piper's conversations with Anna, the former often sounds more like a mother ("That's my girl"; "Put that incredible brain to use") than the sister which the characters soon come to resemble.

But now we come to the many good aspects of this book. The relationship between Piper and Anna is wonderfully developed and essentially everything kidlit doesn't tend to have in a girl-girl friendship, especially given the very interesting — and later telling — characterization of Anna, who is truly endearing. If I may say so without spoiling anything, their relationship is also intricately tied into the magical aspect of this otherwise-steampunk book, and furthermore related to the plot. These layers are basic, but also not too common, which makes them all the more awe-some, in the awe-inspiring sense.

The plot is also strong; one of the easiest ways to check for pacing is to see where the main action events take place, and in The Mark of the Dragonfly Piper, Anna and green-eyed Gee run into different sorts of trouble in a town, onboard the train and in a dramatic mansion in the climax. In between, Piper and Anna have enough mysteries to unpack that there is a near-perfect balance of slow and fast scenes. (Indeed, Piper's scenes with Gee are made all the more touching for the excellent pacing. Though I do have to insert a complaint about his green eyes making him all ~special~ here. He's a chamelin — why does he need to be any more special?)

Now, the worldbuilding. In retrospection, the beginning is slower as Piper's old way of life is detailed, yet the amount of set-up Johnson leads us through doesn't feel quite enough somehow. There remains much about the politics of the entire planet to be explained, especially considering the ramifications which Anna's past (well, present) is supposed to have on the kingdom. Piper's magical ability is an interesting introduction of fantasy, and the meteor showers themselves are a potential-laden concept which hint at other worlds. Enough substance is there to provide a firm foundation for the forthcoming companion novel, which according to the author's website will feature different characters.

Overall, if you can overlook the awkward writing and dialogue, The Mark of the Dragonfly is a well-paced and richly-characerized novel that does justice to the genre of steampunk and the age category of middle-grade.

Ethnic balance: 2 out of 5. An interesting, non-Western-sounding selection of names for cities and towns, but no mention of ethnicity beyond Gee's "olive" (ugh) skin.

Rating: 4.1 out of 5

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

three years for PtC. whoa. + giveaway!

It's hard to believe, but I guess add up enough long absences, sporadic memes, five-reviews-in-a-row streaks and catch-up posts and you get three whole years. Wow, I remember a while ago (in my one year post, in fact) thinking that two years was ancient in the blogosphere. This makes me want to hug my wee blog so hard. :) We made it to three years, y'all!

If you've been reading all this time, or if you just clicked through from some SEO site, or if you've dropped by intermittently to comment, thank you. I appreciate every pageview, every comment, every thought you've had in response to what I've written here. There's nothing like being a small-time book blogger to make you understand how much time it takes to read and respond to a blog post, so please know I am so happy and grateful.

I'd like to host a giveaway now! If you would like to win an advance reader's copy of Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse, please enter below. Full disclosure: this book has been published in finished form (March 4, 2014). Open to Canadian and US residents; ends March 30, 2014. (As always, if I have any international readers, I'm so sorry!)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

All my love.

- Eden