Picket Town by Chris von Halle: An Age-Appropriately Creepy SF for the MG reader in your life

Picket TownPicket Town

by Chris von Halle

PDF, 178 pg.
Clean Reads, 2018
Read: July 31, 2018

Amanda is bored. Every day is the same — her life isn’t bad, she actually likes it. But she wants more. She’s not sure exactly what it is that she wants — but it’ll be found outside the city limits of New Pines (she calls it Picket Town). She and her friend Sam spend their days after school playing a computer RPG, eating with their families, playing the game some more and repeating the whole thing the next day.

Then something starts happening — some of the kids in town come down with some sort of bacterial infection that requires them to be hospitalized while a cure is worked on. Amanda starts to wonder if everyone is going to be okay — no matter how often she’s assured that the grown-ups have everything under control. She wants to strike out, she wants to learn something — and on the way home from school, they pass the same sign forbidding them to enter the forest that they walk by every day. But this day, this particular day she decides she’s had enough — and then she convinces Sam to come with her. They climb over the fence and explore the forest. This is the most thrilling thing they’ve ever done. Right up until the point that they find a what appears to be a flying saucer (well, a saucer that’s landed). Pretty much everything they’ve ever known ends right there. What follows is exciting, dramatic, and unexpected (well, at least for the target audience — Middle Grade — adult readers will have a pretty good chance of seeing what’s around the corner, most of the time).

I wasn’t so sure that I was going to enjoy this at the beginning, I’m not sure why, it just didn’t seem like it clicked. But it honestly didn’t take long before it reminded me of the better SF I read in grade school, and I was in it for the long haul. Although, honestly, I’m not sure any of the books I read when I was that age would’ve gone where von Halle took this. That’s a compliment, by the way, it may not look like one.

I’m not crazy about the conclusion, I have to say, as much as I liked almost everything that came before. There’s a good twist to it — and I really liked it. But the ending itself? I don’t know — it relied too much on a big info-dump, and then the reveal for Amanda and Sam could’ve been executed a little better. But I think those are quibbles, and I really don’t imagine that there’s a Fourth Grader out there that’ll say the same thing.

This isn’t a MG novel that transcends the label and that’ll appeal to adults — in other words, not everyone is J.K. Rowling. I’ll give you a moment to digest that revelation. This is a MG novel that knows its audience and that will deliver what it wants. Were I in that audience, I’d be re-reading this a few times. I’m not, so I’ll tell people to give it to someone who’ll appreciate it more.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, given above.

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3 Stars

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My Lady Jane (Audiobook) Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, Katherine Kellgren: This YA Romance/Alt-History/Fantasy is simply delightful

My Lady JaneMy Lady Jane

by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, Katherine Kellgren (Narrator)
Series: The Lady Janies, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 13 hrs., 47 min.
HarperAudio, 2016
Read: July 2 – 5, 2016

           You may think you know the story. It goes like this: once upon a time, there was a sixteen-year-old girl named Jane Grey, who was forced to marry a complete strange (Lord Guildford or Gilford or Gifford-something-or-other), and shortly thereafter found herself ruler of a country. She was queen for nine days. Then she quite literally lost her head.

Yes, it’s a tragedy, if you consider the disengagement of one’s head from one’s body tragic. (We are merely narrators, and would hate to make assumptions as to what the reader would find tragic.)

We have a different tale to tell.

Pay attention. We’ve tweaked minor details. We’ve completely rearranged major details. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent (or not-so-innocent, or simply because we thought a name was terrible and we liked another name better). And we’ve added a touch of magic to keep things interesting. So really anything could happen.

This is how we think Jane’s story should have gone.

So begins the Prologue to this wonderfully fun book. It’s that second paragraph — but specifically the parenthetical sentence — that locked in my appreciation for the book. Thankfully, it continued to be as good as that paragraph, but I was going to be a fan of anything that happened from that point on.

The advantage you have with historical figures that no one knows anything about, is historical novelists — particularly those who like to play with their history — can do pretty much what they want. Lady Jane Grey is probably the English monarch that people know the least about (if they know about her at all) making her perfect fodder for this story.

This is one of those books that I can’t figure out how to summarize, so I’m just going to steal the publisher’s blurb, as much as I hate doing that, but my attempts have a mess, and theirs worked:

           In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind YA fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane gets to be Queen of England.

Like that could go wrong.

The characters are wonderful — no one’s perfectly good, or perfectly evil (although there are a few that come close in both directions). The authors keep things moving well, never letting the story detract from the characters, or one part of the narrative take over (there’s plenty of action, romance, friendship, espionage for everyone). Yes there’s magic, yes there’s comedy, but there’s also a lot of heart — a lot of joyful storytelling. This has it all. I really can’t point to a favorite bit, or favorite theme or anything. This is just one of those books I enjoyed all of.

Inside this novel is a love letter to books — and Jane is the representative book lover par excellence (though she could like poetry and novels a bit more) — there’s a treasure trove of quotations about reading, books, and related topics in these pages. All of them delightful.

The novel is clearly clever, witty, with a lot of heart, etc., but what sealed the deal for me was Katherine Kelgren’s outstanding performance. I would’ve enjoyed the novel pretty much no matter who wrote it (I’m not sure Scott Brick or Dick Hill could’ve pulled if off, but you never know), but Kelgren absolutely sold it. Her accent work was outstanding, the life and verve she brought to the project just wowed me.

I’m blathering on, I realize — yet I’m not sure I’ve actually said anything. Bah — just grab the book or audiobook. I don’t care if you’re YA or just A, if you like romance or not, male or female — if you like a fun story that’s well told and never takes itself too seriously (but never makes a joke out of anything important), read it. You’ll have a blast.

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4 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

The Incredible Ordinary Hero or The Brave Bystander: Burns by Aida Rascanu, Beatrice Magrini (Illustrator): A Nice Book Almost as Long as Its Title

The Incredible Ordinary Hero or The Brave Bystander: BurnsThe Incredible Ordinary Hero or The Brave Bystander: Burns

by Aida Rascanu, Beatrice Magrini (Illustrator)

Kindle Edition, 28 pg.
2018
Read: June 2, 2018

This is just a great idea — a double-whammy of a lesson for the readers/audience. First, there’s a discussion of what it means to be a hero (doing things that are heroic) and there’s a little first aid lesson — age appropriate, mind you — to help parents/teachers train up young ones.

The writing was good enough — I think it could’ve been written in such a way to connect with readers better, and to be a little less preachy. But my guess is that the audience will have no problem with it, just the adults. I did think things ended abruptly, though — and that’s going to rankle a kid or three. Still, this is solidly-written.

The art will keep the reader’s attention — and honestly, it could’ve gone pretty graphic, but it didn’t.

From Rascanu’s website, it appears that this is supposed to be the beginning of a series — it would probably work better for reading if there was at least one companion volume. If so, it’d be a great investment for parents of wee ones — if not, this would still be a good idea. Just not as much of an investment, I guess.

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3 Stars

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

Trouble Makes a Comeback (Audiobook) by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney: Not as good as its predecessor, but a heckuva fun read/listen

Trouble Makes a ComebackTrouble Makes a Comeback

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)
Series: Trouble, #2

Unabridged Audiobook, 7 hrs., 56 min.
Listening Library, 2016
Read: May 23-24, 2018

After the explosive ending of Trouble is a Friend of Mine, life has settled down for Zoe — so much so, she may have achieved “normalcy.” Her grades are good, she’s got a nice job, she’s dating the backup QB (maybe not the brightest guy, but he’s nice), and even has a couple of friends. The biggest stress in her life is the SATs just around the corner (she’s over-prepared but doesn’t believe it). Her mother’s got a new live-in boyfriend, and other than all the health food he’s insisting they eat, things are good on that front, too — better than they’ve been in years.

Which means, it’s time for Digby to come back to town and muck everything up. And boy howdy, he does a great job of that.He’s got a lead on his missing sister, and he wants Zoe to help. Oh, and he’s pretty sure there’s a drug ring afoot at her school, and he might as well take that out while he’s at it.

The drug story runs just like you’d think it would — maybe a bit too conventionally, really. But it does it’s job — giving Digby, Zoe and the rest an easier target than the quest for his sister. And is good for enough laughs and tension that it feels like more than just a distraction from the “real” story.

That story, the hunt for clues to his sister’s fate is huge. We learn so much more than we did in the first novel — and find out that so much that Digby thought he knew wasn’t quite right. In the end, this task feels out of the reach and capabilities of these two — even if it’s inevitable that they’ll get somewhere that the police, FBI, and other professionals never did.

I may not have done myself a favor listening to this so soon after the first novel — I may have liked it better with a cool-down period. Still, I just don’t think it’s as good. Which is strange, the story’s more focused, there’s less stage-setting needed — we know almost everyone already, the situation is clear, etc. But the story wasn’t as gripping, I kept waiting for something to happen — and when it did, it seemed too easy. Plus, the whole “high school story” thing — romantic relationships, etc. — was more significant to this book. None of this made it a bad book, just a “less-good” one. Still, plenty of fun, and I really want to get the sequel, which can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Nevertheless — I enjoyed the novel (and McInerney is a big part of that) — I laughed, I had fun, I enjoyed the tension, and might have even gotten wrapped up in the emotional moments. A strong sequel that does an admirable job of setting up a sure-to-be knockout final book in the trilogy.

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3.5 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

Trouble is a Friend of Mine (Audiobook) by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney: The most enjoyable mystery I’ve come across in months!

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)
Series: Trouble, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs., 49 min.
Listening Library, 2015
Read: May 16 – 17, 2018

Preparing to survive a typical day of being Digby’s friend wasn’t that different from preparing to survive the apocalypse.

I don’t remember exactly what I was reading, but I came across a reference to this book filling the Veronica Mars dialogue hole for the writer (or something like that — I stupidly closed the tab and moved on so I can’t get the quotation right, or credit the source…). That sounded good enough to try, and boy, oh boy, am I glad I did. I doubted it’d come close to Veronica Mars, because none of the things I’ve read compared to it have ever come close (not that I haven’t enjoyed many of those things, even in their non-Mars-ness), but that was wrong of me — there’s a strong Mars-like vibe here.

Actually, that’ll work for a very reductionistic and not very accurate summary of this book: It’s Veronica Mars, gender-flipped, narrated by the Wallace figure.

I should’ve paid more attention to the piece I skimmed, I didn’t realize until I’d started that this was a YA mystery, but it works okay for older readers. There’s a soupçon of romance — and only that. I just want to throw that out before some of you decide to bow out of this one from the start.

So, post-bitter divorce, Zoe and her mother move to a small town from NYC. Mom’s an English professor at a community college and Zoe’s trying to fit in — temporarily. Her plan is to blow this popsicle-stand and move on to a Private School, make her mark there and step on to Princeton. She just needs to nail this semester.

Enter Digby. This odd boy who always wears a suit and refuses to fit in. First, ropes her into working on an insane independent study project (which he shows no signs of ever working on), showing up in the least convenient places, and leading her into all sorts of trouble — despite her best intentions.

Digby has a dark past, the events of which shape his every move (that’s obvious, I know — but he’s self-conscious about it) and the way that everyone in town sees his every move. It’d be very easy for this past to turn Digby into some sort of Bruce Wayne-y do-gooder crusader; or angry, rebellious young man — neither ends up being the case. He’s a brilliant kid with little regard for societal norms (not that he’s not very aware of them and how to use them for his own benefit). I’m doing a horrible job describing him — while there’s all that going on, Digby is observant, quick-witted, a creative thinker, resourceful, with a sharp-tongue, an odd-sense of humor and the teenaged-boyest teenage-boy appetite.

Zoe is strong-willed (except when it comes to Digby or her father), smart, careful, cautious, determined and focused. But she wants to be more — she wants to be adventurous, popular. I just don’t think she can admit that to herself. She’s a great character with a voice that makes you just like her.

Speaking of voice, I’ve gotta give kudos to Kathleen McInerney. She narrates this tale with life, verve, and humor. This is good material and she makes it live.

In addition to Zoe and Digby, we’ve got Henry — an old friend of Digby’s, the clean-cut quarterback — and many other mainstays of high school fiction (the meangirl, the computer geek, the bully athletes). Zoe’s mother is a better-than-average adult character for YA fiction, she’s not perfect, but she’s a committed and caring mother. Her father, on the other hand, is a little more typical — over-bearing and focused on his goals for his daughter (that’s typical for a character, not a father, I want to stress). The characters and the relationships between them feel grounded and believable — which makes it easy to want to see them succeed and to buy into the outlandish situations that Digby introduces Zoe and Henry to.

I’ve gone on a lot without talking about the plot — what kind of situations are there for Digby to involve his friends in? Let’s start with the cult with a headquarters across the street from Zoe’s house, and the very creepy guys who live there. There’s drug dealing, a missing high schooler, some dumpster arson, a gynecologist who definitely needs to review the Hippocratic oath, a case the police have given up on, and high school drama. It’s actually very difficult to say the plot is about X, because Digby has an agenda that he really doesn’t fill people in on until the last minute. And he seemingly hops around from caper to caper in an ADHD-manner. Minor spoiler: it’s not the case, he as some kind of a plan.

I’ve done a lousy job selling you on this book, some of that is because it’s such a quirky, oddball of a story — and the rest is due to a sloppy job on part, so let me sum up before I make things worse. The book moves swiftly and smoothly, making you smile frequently — impressed with Digby’s dogged determination and enjoying (even while rolling your eyes at his antics). The dialogue is snappy, the characters are likeable, you’ll find yourself invested in this crazy story — even if you’re a couple of decades past the target audience. Trombly has given us a great gift in Zoe and Digby, give this a shot, you’ll have a great time.

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4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

BOOK BLITZ: Daughter of the Sun by Zoe Kalo

Daughter of the Sun
~ Cult of the Cat Series Book 1 ~
About the Book:

Title: Daughter of the Sun
Series: Cult of the Cat Series, Book 1
Author: Zoe Kalo
Genre: YA Contemporary Fantasy / Paranormal
Word Count: 93,000 words
No. of Pages: 330

Mystery, adventure, a hint of romance, and the delicious sweep of magic…
Sixteen-year-old Trinity was born during a solar eclipse and left at the doorsteps of a convent along with a torn piece of papyrus covered with ancient symbols. Raised by nuns in the English countryside, she leads a quiet life until she’s whisked away to the Island of Cats and a grandmother she never knew. 
But before they can get to know each other, her grandmother dies. All that Trinity has left is a mysterious eye-shaped ring. And a thousand grieving cats. As Trinity tries to solve the enigma of the torn papyrus, she discovers a world of bloody sacrifices and evil curses, and a prophecy that points to her and her new feline abilities. 
Unwilling to believe that any of the Egyptian gods could still be alive, Trinity turns to eighteen-year-old Seth and is instantly pulled into a vortex of sensations that forces her to confront her true self—and a horrifying destiny.
Get Your Copy of this Book. Available for FREE for a LIMITED TIME ONLY! 


About the Author:

Storyteller at heart…


A certified bookworm and ailurophile, Zoe Kalo has always been obsessed with books and reading. The pleasure of writing and sharing her fantasy worlds has remained. Today, Zoe passes her stories to you with lots of mystery, adventure, a hint of romance, and the delicious sweep of magic.

Currently, she balances writing with spending time with her family, taking care of her clowder of cats, and searching for the perfect bottle of pinot noir.

Contact the Author:
Website * Facebook * Twitter

The Assassin of Oz by Nicky Peacock: A Fast, Strange and Violent Sequel that Tops its Predecessor

The Assassin of OzThe Assassin of Oz

by Nicky Peacock
Series: The Twisted and The Brave, #1

PDF, 180 pg.
Evernight Teen, 2018
Read: May 14 – 15, 2018
I’m not sure what it says about me/the books I read/the world in general, that given the strangeness of the world depicted in this series — the serial killer, vigilante organization, imaginary friend that’s not that imaginary, Native American legendary creature that’s going around killing people — and the even stranger stuff on the horizon of this book, that the hardest thing for me to swallow came in these opening pages. The Prime Minister imposes mandatory capital punishment for murder? That’s just so hard to believe. All the outlandish supernatural stuff just around the corner of that moment seems routine and blasé in comparison.

It takes awhile for this novel to show how it’s related to Lost in Wonderland, although it shares a sensibility and style from the get-go. Because of a couple of references and a news story, you know that this happens in the same world, but the characters are all new for the first two-thirds or so of this book. So when some of the characters from Lost in show up, it almost feels like they’re guest stars.

A 17-year old orphan named Halo is living with her horrible step-father who uses her for a punching bag and a cover for him as he sells drugs, she’s just not sure how to get out of this life when someone calling himself the Wizard shows up to recruit her for his club — Oz. The members of this little club are all murderers, many are technically serial killers at least partially responsible for the re-imposition of capital punishment.

Gavin is a police detective from the States, working with the British police to stop some of these serial killers — apparently Britain is recruiting police officers from around the globe to help slow their slide into dystopia. Gavin and his partner are on the hunt for a killer they call Valentine — who takes the hearts of his victims. A reporter is also trying to get him on board his personal crusade to help exonerate a convicted murder before he’s the first execution in decades.

These actually have more in common than you’d expect — a whole lot more than they’d ever expect or guess. Both end up immersed in the activities of Oz. Which is really about all I can say without ruining everything.

The prose is sharp and sparse — there’s hardly a wasted word. I mean this as a description, not a criticism, but frequently this reads more like an extended outline than a completed draft. It’s a gamble to try it — but Peacock makes that kind of writing work for her.

Fast-paced, focused, imaginative, action-packed and strange. This is an entertaining read — The Assassin of Oz novel delivers what it promises, a genre-mashup full of excitement. This is a solid sequel and does a nice job of setting up the next installment which seems like it’ll be another fun one.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinions.

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3.5 Stars