Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pick 6: Mysteries

There's nothing like a good mystery. Whether you're six or sixty, we all enjoy going over clues and trying to guess the solution before the book's characters do. Here are six new mystery stories published in the last six months. The first half of the list is geared at a younger audience while the latter half is more teen oriented.

6 new mysteries

1. The Sandwich Thief by Andre Marais

2. The Lost Twin by Sophie Cleverly

3. Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey

4. Defender by Graham McNamee

5. Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

6. Girl Last Seen by Heather Anastasiu

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book review - Sword in the Stacks

WARNING: This book is a sequel. If you have not read The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand (see my review here) there may be spoilers ahead.

Title: The Ninja Librarians: Sword in the Stacks
Author: Jen Swann Downey
Genre: fantasy/adventure
Similar books: Dr. Critchlore's School for Minions by Sheila Grau
                     The Peddler's Road by Matthew Cody
a solid sequel

Summary(provided by publisher): Now that Dorrie’s an apprentice, she has the power to save Petrarch’s Library—or destroy it
After stumbling upon the secret society of ninja librarians who transcend time and space, Dorrie and her brother have officially become apprentices. They are determined to help the Lybrarians find a missing key that could destroy their beloved fortress, Petrarch’s Library. On a training mission to 1912 England, Dorrie sees her chance. All she needs to do is get close to a lord with a connection to the Lybrarians’ enemy—the Stronghold. But if she arouses his suspicion, she could lead the Strongholders right to the very place she’s trying to save…and everyone she cares about.

My opinion: I like that this series features an adventurous girl and her sometimes lovesick brother rather than the other way around as we're used to seeing. Dorrie's a pretty cool, surprisingly realistic protagonist. She judges people too quickly, makes mistakes she's afraid to own up to, but in the end her sense of right and wrong prevails. This sequel has a pretty solid adventure plot. We've got time travel, a villain with a nefarious plan, and plenty of sneaking around. Some plot points could use more support, a stronger basis for conclusions and innovations. There are, at times, some significant leaps of logic and out-there notions of magic/technology that are not fully explained.
It is worth noting that I read the first book in this series more than two years ago, so I was not particularly confident in my recollection of that plot. This volume begins with a rehash of the first one that is nicely integrated into the narration, a natural recollection of past events. There is enough information that one need not read book one to have a solid understanding of this one.

More information: Sword in the Stacks releases July 7.
Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Llama trio

The craft I have to share with you today isn't particularly complex. I drew some llamas on waste card-stock that came in a package  with my new (to me) markers. Mostly I wanted to try out the markers, a bag of assorted scrap-booking markers I found at Goodwill for a dollar. I figured I could use them as bookmarks.

Then I remembered that I mostly read e-books. And I have dozens of bookmarks already in a box on my bookshelf for when I do read print. So for now the llamas are just decorating my bookshelf.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Book review - The Distance to Home

Title: The Distance to Home
Author: Jenn Bishop
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Dear Opl by Shelley Sackier
                     The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
lovely and heartbreaking

Summary(provided by publisher): For fans of Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Rita Williams-Garcia, Jenn Bishop's heartwarming debut is a celebration of sisterhood and summertime, and of finding the courage to get back in the game.
Last summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.
This summer, everything is different. Haley's death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn't want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen's not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher's mound?

My opinion: If you're looking for a simple, warm-hearted sports story, this is not your book. Don't get me wrong: baseball plays a major role in the plot and the message is an affirming one. This is just more of an emotional wringer than most sports books. 
To my way of thinking, books about grief for the younger set must be carefully done to avoid becoming trite and minimizing the emotions of the target audience. This is one such careful portrayal. The best word I can think of for it is authentic. Quinnen's portrayal is very believable. She's confused by the changes in her older sister prior to her death, wants life to be as simple as it has always been.
While the major portion of the plot focuses on working through grief, baseball is a strong presence. Secondary messages include being a team player, focusing on the good of your team instead of yourself, and not judging others too quickly. 
What this all adds up to is a book that can be read and enjoyed both by fans of emotional journeys and of sports stories.

More information: The Distance to Home releases June 28.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Picture books for everyone

Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger

If you've never experienced this book do yourself a favor: go out and find a copy right now. Abiyoyo was one of my favorite episodes of Reading Rainbow. Magical, musical, and just the right amount of scary for young readers. If you can, get this with the audio. While any one can read Abiyoyo, no one reads it like Pete Seeger.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book review - The Haunting of Falcon House

Title: The Haunting of Falcon House
Author: Eugene Yelchin
Genre: historical fiction
Similar books: The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett
                     The Swallow by Charis Cotter
Nicely written but a tough sell

Summary(provided by publisher): A long undisturbed bedroom. A startling likeness. A mysterious friend.
When twelve-year-old Prince Lev Lvov goes to live with his aunt at Falcon House, he takes his rightful place as heir to the Lvov family estate. Prince Lev dreams of becoming a hero of Russia like his great ancestors. But he'll discover that dark secrets haunt this house. Prince Lev is the only one who can set them free-will he be the hero his family needs?

My opinion: It can be hard to sell kids on historical fiction, especially books like this one. Not only is the setting historical, it is foreign. Tsarist Russia can be difficult for adult readers to understand, much less middle graders. While the setting is well described, we don't get much in the way of explanation for the class system in Russia, the naming format, anything.  There are supernatural elements but they aren't spooky enough to make this a truly compelling read.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by publisher.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Birthday cards

A few weeks ago, I posted about a card I had made for my nephew. Today I bring you two more Martha original birthday cards, one for my dad and one for my other nephew.

The inside of this one reads "Please wait while he wraps your cake and lights the candles on your present"

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book review - Gifted

Title: Gifted
Author: H. A. Swain
Genre: dystopia
Similar books: MARTians by Blythe Woolston
                     Material Girls by Elaine Dimopoulos
Great concept, decent execution

Summary(provided by publisher): In Orpheus Chanson's world, geniuses and prodigies are no longer born or honed through hard work. Instead, procedures to induce Acquired Savant Abilities (ASAs) are now purchased by the privileged. And Orpheus's father holds the copyright to the ASA procedure.
Zimri Robinson, a natural musical prodigy, is a "plebe"--a worker at the enormous warehouse that supplies an on-line marketplace that has supplanted all commerce. Her grueling schedule and her grandmother's illness can't keep her from making music--even if it is illegal.
Orpheus and Zimri are not supposed to meet. He is meant for greatness; she is not. But sometimes, rules are meant to be broken. Here is a thriller, love story, and social experiment that readers will find gripping--and terrifying.

My opinion: Firstly, this is a great variation on the standard dystopian setting. Other novels have a world where art and music are tightly controlled or outlawed outright. In Swain's novel it is privatized, own by corporations from the moment it is created. That's new and entirely believable. So I was completely on board with the concept. The execution, though, had some believability issues. I could accept Orpheus vanishing into plebe society. He had kept out of the public eye and everyone he knew only used him as part of some agenda. It was the characters themselves I struggled with. Orpheus is just a little too good, too enamored with hard work and "real" life. He doesn't really wish for the comforts of his old life or even struggle to adjust to plebe life. With the exception of Orpheus, all of the privileged characters are shallow, concerned only with their own position in society, and have no real care for others. While we are given explanations for their behavior, it can feel like a judgement of all people who come from a privileged background.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Books on screen

Arthur and the Minimoys/Arthur and the Invisibles

This movie is actually based on two books: Arthur and the Minimoys and Arthur and the Forbidden City. Plot-wise, the movie follows the books relatively well. There are changes of course. It is inevitable in a movie for timelines to be shortened, locations to change, that sort of thing. Casting is sort of a mixed bag. Freddy Highmore was a great choice for Arthur, Mia Farrow as Granny not so much. My biggest issue with this movie is actually the pacing. While the books tend to drag a little, the movie races ahead, jumping from scene to scene without pause or reflection. Even the dialogue progresses too quickly. It doesn't reflect the natural flow of a conversation at all. I felt like the movie focused entirely too much on special effects and quips instead of the complex plot and world-building of the novels.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book review - Genius

Title: Genius - The Game
Author: Leopoldo Gout
Genre: thriller
Similar books: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
                     The Silence of Six by E.C. Myers
exciting but over-simplified

Summary(provided by publisher):Trust no one. Every camera is an eye. Every microphone an ear. Find me and we can stop him together.
The Game: Get ready for Zero Hour as 200 geniuses from around the world go head to head in a competition hand-devised by India's youngest CEO and visionary.
The Players:
Rex- One of the best programmers/hackers in the world, this 16-year-old Mexican-American is determined to find his missing brother.
Tunde-This14-year-old self-taught engineering genius has drawn the attention of a ruthless military warlord by single-handedly bringing electricity and internet to his small Nigerian village.
Painted Wolf-One of China's most respected activist bloggers, this mysterious 16-year-old is being pulled into the spotlight by her father's new deal with a corrupt Chinese official.
The Stakes: Are higher than you can imagine. Like life and death. Welcome to the revolution. And get ready to run.

My opinion: A surface understanding of computers, networking, engineering, and/or coding is helpful but not necessary when reading this book. The narrative presumes we understand these things and thus provides no explanation. While the sciences play a major role in the plot there isn't a lot of detail. For instance, we're told that Tunde builds a laser from parts scavenged from the auditorium. While there are design drawing, understanding how it works or even exactly what it does are not crucial to following the plot. Similarly, while politics and power plays are involved in the plot, they are linear, black and white. There is a clear villain, the implication that those in power are either corrupt or inept, not a lot of room for grey areas. Entertaining, decent pacing. I'd have liked to have seen the characters given a little more depth, more genuine personal conflict with others apart from that which is inherent in competition. A decent thrilling read. Just not anything you'll spend much time contemplating later.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, June 13, 2016

It's always winter...

When I first moved into my new place, I was immediately enamored with the builtin storage in one bedroom. With nearly a dozen drawers and a large wardrobe, its a great space-saver. Even better, its a wardrobe. I had visions of painting the back of it to look like the entrance into Narnia. In the end, I decided to paint a panel to insert into the wardrobe rather than the wall itself. I got a large piece of cardboard, a reference picture from the Lionsgate movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and plenty of acrylic paint. After an afternoon of concentrated effort, this is what I ended up with.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Book review - The Sound of Us

Title: The Sound of Us
Author: Julie Hammerle
Genre: romance
Similar books: Guitar Notes  by Mary Amato
                     Signs Point to Us by Sandy Hall
Nice enough

Summary(provided by publisher): Kiki Nichols might not survive music camp.
She’s put her TV-loving, nerdy self aside for one summer to prove she’s got what it takes: she can be cool enough to make friends, she can earn that music scholarship, and she can get into Krause University’s music program.
Except camp has rigid conduct rules—which means her thrilling late-night jam session with the hot, equally geeky drummer can’t happen again, even though they love all the same shows, and fifteen minutes making music with him meant more than every aria she’s ever sung.
But when someone starts reporting singers who break conduct rules, music camp turns survival of the fittest, and people are getting kicked out. If Kiki’s going to get that scholarship, her chance to make true friends—and her first real chance at something more—might cost her the future she wants more than anything.

My opinion: What I liked about this one: Kiki is passionate. She has strong interests and doesn't let her opinions be swayed by others. She finds her own strength, not in other people but in spite of them. Her relationships with Jack and her former best friend don't end up fixed. They find a sort of stalemate, a potential for things to get better in the future. And while Kiki does end up stronger, her life isn't perfect. She's an anxious weirdo with only a vague plan for her future. She has simply accepted those imperfect parts of herself. 
What I didn't like: the cliches. Kiki is a cliche, a nerdy girl, mildly overweight, introverted, with a tv obsession and a semi-secret musical talent. Her parents are cliches, pushing their children to choose "practical" majors instead of the arts (though honestly, what's so practical about studying Latin?), setting ultimatums, overly concerned with what others will think. Even the other campers fit into an expectation for a performing arts program: at least one who is elitist and almost all cut-throat. It can work to embrace cliches if characterization is strong enough, especially if there is a touch of self-effacing humor. That's not the case here. Most of the characters were not developed beyond a basic profile. A read for an afternoon or two but nothing that will blow you away and ultimately forgettable.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Graphic Novel Spotlight: Bad Machinery

Bad Machinery series by John Allison

Bad Machinery is a middle grade graphic novel series out of Great Britain.  It is, to put it simply, odd. But the most delightful kind of odd. Quirky in a strangely endearing way. Allison combines pseudo-paranormal investigation with regular preteen concerns: crushes, popularity, siblings. The books follow two groups of students, one of boys and one of girls, as they investigate mysteries in their town. These mysteries usually have some unusual element. There is a heavy dose of humor in each book and that, with the extreme quirkiness, makes for a surprisingly enjoyable read. While these books might not be a good choice for every tween, for the reader with an unusual sense of humor they should be a hit.


Monday, June 6, 2016

When you can't find a good poster, make your own

I've been on something of a Harry Potter kick of late which is weird considering I haven't read or watched Harry Potter in something like six months.

Actually, this week's project is just as inspired by art as it is by Harry Potter. I was thinking about Magritte's pipe painting recently and, for no explicable reason, I got to thinking about Harry Potter. And this is the end result.
Not a portkey, though it could be

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Pick 6: Magic

Spells, faeries, witches, giants. Magical elements seem to resonate with young readers and there are some really excellent fantasy novels being written for them. Here are six books published in the past six months that feature magic.

6 new magical novels

1. Crystal Cadets by Anne Toole and Katie O'Neil

2. The Door By the Staircase by Katherine Marsh

3. Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den by Aimee Carter

4. Believe Your Eyes by Cori Doerrfeld and Tyler Page

5. Red  by Liesel Shurtiff

6. Shadow Magic by Joshua Khann