Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager
A runaway with a privileged past
A spy known as the Wraith
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

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Even though I really liked this book (4/5 stars), I’m going to go ahead and air on the side of harsh in this review because this is one of those books that is really popular that no one who knows anything about writing ever reviews. Like most other teen fiction books, it gets a lot of hype for a reason that no one can place their finger on.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the characters. Usually, in teen fiction it’s the characters that suck. What I appreciated was the backstory, leading up to present lives that made sense. It also wasn’t excessive; in fact, no backstory was shared unless it was neccesary. I also liked that there weren’t too many characters to keep track of. Warning: the first chapter is a bunch of nonsense and totally threw me off.

I liked the pace of the plot, it made sense and was easy to follow; it also strung me along on the edge of my seat, wanting to know more answers, even from the beginning. Very clever story telling.

Leigh Bardugo is VERY skilled at knowing her audience. No matter how many times you argue with me on this point, this book was written for teen girls. Yes, I know it’s about a dirty gang and 4/6 characters are young men. But that’s the draw, you see. If you wish to differ, change the characters to 6/6 as boys. Then you’ll see what I mean. With Bardugo’s audience in mind, she skillfully draws in the teens….and drives away everyone else. So I’m both congratulating and wagging my finger at this author, because when you write for teens you can get away with a lot that you normally can’t because your readers still eat it up. How can you argue with that?

One of the biggest things that bothered me was some of the decisions that the characters made. Even though Kaz was supposed to be like a genius, he agrees with some really weird stuff. Like almost total nonsense that form gigantic holes in the plot.  I peer down into the void and wonder what could have filled it. And then it hits me: nothing could have filled it, that’s why it’s there. So it’s the authors fault for not editing out scenes that don’t make sense, and she hopes you will overlook the holes so she can fulfill your need for those all-important awkard moments of romantic tension.

Example (and yes, I made this up so I don’t spoil the book):

Kaz: “Alright, let’s leave Matthias and Inej to guard this door.”

Inej: “Wait, you can’t leave me here! I’m the only person who knows that the blue lock picks fit into the pink doors!”

Kaz: “Fine, we’ll leave Nina here with Matthias so they can solve the problems of the universe together.”

Yep. Something like that actually happened. The author resorts to weird cliches, like comparing Nina’s eyes with green fire. HOLY COW! GREEN FIRE!? Does that mean something? Should I be afraid? Last time I checked, fire wasn’t green. Actual description lost, and I don’t think Bardugo meant that her eyes have gone up in acidic flame.

And another thing: somewhere in the middle of the heist, the author got so caught up with the action of it, she forgot what they were actually stealing. I actually got confused as to whether they were still trying to get in, or trying to get out.

This book is definitely for 13+ because of content. Sometimes pretty gruesome, a decent amount of moderate swearing. One of the main characters comes from being a slave in a brothel and suffers a lot of mental trauma. Not really any particular circumstances are given, but there are a number of references throughout the book that can’t really just be glossed over.

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The Water Seeker, by Kimberly Willis Holt

Born with a gift that he tries to hide, Amos struggles through life with the knowledge of his water-seeking ability. His Pa was a “dowser” as well, but he thought it was a curse, tying him to his work instead of the mountains where his true calling lay as a trapper. So Amos stuffs his skill way down, trying to forget so he can be like other boys.

Except, how can he? The water both calls to and terrifies him. How can you live a life that you yourself have torn in two?

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This book had a crazy amount of potential. Seriously. But living up to the expectation of the description is easier said than done.

The one thing I could tell about this book: the author was in love with it. She was in love with her characters so much, she couldn’t drop any ideas that came into her head. What I mean to say is this: there was too much that happened in that story. The overall plot could have been summed into maybe half as long as the book actually was. In essence, she didn’t want it to end, and she couldn’t let anything go. If I was the editor, I would have ripped out whole chunks and then flung it back at her.

Typically, the reason a book is long is because one of two things needs to happen: a. lots of plot! Or b., serious character development. In this book, I felt like it was neither; it was just filled with lots of….stuff. You could say it was plot, but instead it was just hopping from one random Western-type story to the next. His childhood takes forever to come to an end by the time they hit the Oregon trail. At that point, he should have developed lots and lots of character, but instead he is a sort of vague and generic boy.

I think the idea of a character needs to be explored by the author. It felt like she thought that character meant all this stuff that was on the outside of the character, instead of digging to the heart of the issue. Amos could have struggled with extreme loneliness, depression, abandonment, trust issues and fear of a whole slough of things. Instead the author decided to give him talents and outward random oddities like birds following him and natural artistic ability. Those things do not set Amos up for a triumphant ending by wrapping up his internal struggle full circle. It sets up the ending to be evident and clear from the beginning, thus being less climactic and meaningful.

I would have preferred to see this book structured out a little more thoughtfully, and given a major edit before publishing.

A side note: kudos to Will Patton the narrator! Switching from a Southern accent to British with ease is no small feat. We really enjoyed his voices and creative voices.

UPDATE: This post was mostly finished before I finished the book, but the ending was so badly wrapped up and killed any tension that might have been building by pulling a “Ten Years Later”….. This was going to get a 3/5, but now it is 2/5. It was so bad we were all laughing as the narrator goes into the credits.

Overall Rating: 2/5

Violence: 3/10

Language: 2/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10

Audience: ??? The beginning was awfully rough for a children’s book. Maybe 12 and up?

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.

That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine – and I will do anything, anything to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France – an Allied Invasion of Two.

We are a sensational team. And I have told the truth.

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I am over the moon excited to finally have something good to say about a book; there have been a couple real doozies that I have not been happy about, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.

My first intro to this book was on a road trip about 3 years ago. We checked out a couple audio’s, but we only got a few chapters into the book before turning it off; too much swearing. I don’t think we realized it was in the teen section.

Since then, I have been in dire need of a new book that was good and checked out this one after seeing that it had won a couple of awards since then. I have also read raving reviews of the audio; apparently the narrator has really good accents. Quite a few characters have different accents, including French, German, American, Scottish, British and Jamaican. Personally though, I prefer to read swearing than hearing it out loud. Too jarring. All in all though, I didn’t think there was too much to handle.

Oh, so many good things! A historically accurate novel that is interesting is a really rare gem; most novels with lots of random facts thrown in tend be on the boring side. Wein does not mention anything that does not pertain to the story just because, which was a relief.  This story was all about women pilots during WWII, and I found out at the very end that Wein is actually a pilot. No wonder she knew so much! She really knew what she was talking about!

I will say that it took a while for the story to warm up a little, but the mystery of why Verity was so willing to talk during interrogation kept me curious the whole way through. Oh, and the end! So dang good! Warning: it will probably make you cry.

There was one part that I was particularly impressed by that didn’t need to be included. It doesn’t really give anything away, but Maddie is staying with a French family who are part of the resistance in German-occupied France. She is sleeping in the room of the oldest brother, who now works for the German Gestapo and is a ruthless inquisitor. Being a little nosey and curious to know more about the rebel, she finds an old notebook that he kept when he was only 10 years old, in which he writes that he has decided to be a nature enthusiast and is studying birds. I had tears in my eyes as Maddie wonders what it is in a man that turns him from a bird-watcher to cruel investigator.

There was something really incredible about the way Wein turned all the “bad guys” into something less bad. A little more blurry. von Linden, who can’t bear to see Verity’s pain. The bird-watcher-turned torturer. A little compassion here, an interest in her backstory there. Startling, but it made the story incredibly real, while also not exactly dwelling on what wasn’t needed.

As you might have figured out by now, this is not a children’s book. If it was a movie it would be a firm PG-13 for all three categories that I rate for. It is almost just as much an adult novel as a teen novel to me, but it could easily have been turned into an R rating if the author wasn’t so dedicated to her original age range. I will definitely be on the look out for another book by this author!

Overall Rating: 4.5/5 (minus a half point for beginning wind-up)

Violence: 5/10 (for gore and torture methods; I’m pretty squeamish and didn’t have any problem with it, but still gross)

Language: 5/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 4/10 (nothing really bad ever happens, but there are a few men who can’t keep their hands to themselves)

Audience: Ages 13 and up

The Many Lives of John Stone, by Linda Buckley-Archer

Stella Park (Spark for short) has found summer work cataloging historical archives in John Stone’s remote and beautiful house in Suffolk, England. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and her uncertainty about living at Stowney House only increases upon arriving: what kind of people live in the twenty-first century without using electricity, telephones, or even a washing machine? Additionally, the notebooks she’s organizing span centuries—they begin in the court of Louis XIV in Versailles—but are written in the same hand. Something strange is going on for sure, and Spark’s questions are piling up. Who exactly is John Stone? What connection does he have to these notebooks? And more importantly, why did he hire her in the first place?

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I picked up this book on the “new Teen release” shelf, mostly being intrigued by the cover. Well, and the description, which turned out to be a little misleading. I actually thought the book was going to be super cool and built up this whole plot line before reading it. Now that I know that that is not what the book is about, I can use it myself if I ever wanted to. Yay! Except, I didn’t pick up the book so I could evolve my own plot, I wanted the book to be about what I thought it would be about. And it wasn’t.

It felt like the book lacked substance. Spark was about the most boring person in the world, and had no motives, interest, or any other part in the story except to being an outside person trying to understand the inside lives of a group of people who seem to be stuck in the past.

The premise of this book was good. There was a lot of potential to being a mystery story, except the author blotted out all the mystery by telling you everything at the beginning. Snore. Honestly, I actually didn’t finish the book. I got about halfway through, and then flipped to the end to see what happened in the ending. Why was I not surprised? A plot twist should be, well, a twist, not something you saw coming fifty miles away.

The writing was also severely choppy; it felt like the author’s first novel. In the first paragraph about Spark, she is saying goodbye to her mummy; the second paragraph she is sitting on a train thinking insignificant thoughts; the third paragraph she is in New York City and seeing her brother; the fourth paragraph she loves New York and thinking more insignificant thoughts. A lot of stuff was soooo dry; if I had been the editor I would have thrown it back at the writers face with big “X” marks over chunks of the first few chapters.

My sister and I have this character test. If you took anyone else in the whole world and gave them the same set of choices, would they have done the same exact things? 1. If you answered that there were no questions asked in the whole story, then you have got a lot of plot and ideas but way not enough character development; those types of stories are ones where the character is swept into the action without any choice. 2. If the story presented complex questions but the character has an interesting backstory that conflicts or decides which they answer, then the story has a crazy amount of promise, but at that point authors often lack plot. 3. And then there are stories which often have a little bit of both, but the questions asked are sort of one-track, like yes or no, but even though this sounds a bit shallow it is these stories which often have the best balance of plot and character.

The Many Lives of John Stone perfectly describes the first example: Spark isn’t really asked any questions at all and is sort of just there as a narrator, BUT in order for this story to have worked, it would have needed a huge amount of both mystery and action. There wasn’t enough of either for the story to be a favorite.

The Hunger Games gives one good example of the 2nd type of story; while I don’t particularly find Katniss to be a complex character (most life and death questions are simple in this case), she does make one choice at the end of the first book that is a little more complex. During most of the story, she is given yes or no questions, such as, “would you give up your life to save your sister”; while this may seem like a hard question to ask, it still is a yes or no answer. However, at the end of the Hunger Games, when Katniss and Peeta are the last two contenders and are told they must kill each other, Katniss makes a more complex choice. The basic question to most people would be, “do I kill Peeta or not?” But Katniss chooses to look at the basic question in a deeper way and finds a solution that requires backstory and a small amount of emotional understanding for the reader.

Harry Potter, in general, is a mixture of the first and third example. Most of the time, he isn’t give any questions but is thrown into a situation without a choice, or is given simple, easy questions. Example: He lives with his hated Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, who mistreat him horribly. When a giant of a man shows up on your doorstep telling you you are a wizard and asks if you want to learn more about magic at a magical school, what would you say? This is one of those wishy-washy questions; anyone in his position probably would have said yes considering his terrible relatives, but a lot would have said yes even without them. However, because there is a huge amount of plot and mystery the readers can more easily forgive Harry’s depth of character and still love the book to pieces.

All that being said (and sorry for the sidetrack, but I find it really interesting), there were a couple really bright spots in the book. The other characters were brilliant and awesome, just not the main character. It felt like a lot of the plot was driven by the other characters reaction to the main character instead of other way around. You might like this book if you enjoy the idea of time travel or immortality type stories.

Overall Rating: 2.5/5

Violence: 3/10

Language: 3/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10

Audience: Ages 12 and up

Ulysses Moore: Door to Time, by Pierdomineco Baccalario

In a house on the coast of England, there is a door. It hides unimaginable mysteries, unavoidable danger, and unbelievable surprises. When eleven-year-old twins Jason and Julia move into the old mansion with their family, the door is a secret – locked and hidden behind an old wardrobe.

But Jason, Julia, and their friend Rick are about to discover what lies behind it…

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This book was originally written in Italian, then was translated to an audio. I’m not sure whether you can find it in book form or not in English.

On a roadtrip to Seattle, Washington we checked out three audios. Two, come to find out, were about halfway through a series we had never heard of. So we were stuck with this one the whole way there and back.

I was not thrilled. It was like a cross between Indiana Jones and National Treasure, but the peril was lurking at quite a distance. There were supposed to be a lot of tense moments, but there wasn’t enough tension in the situation because multiple times nothing happened. Multiple close calls don’t make for a very interesting story, because then you figure out that the author has no intention of anything happening. Not very life-threatening if you know there life isn’t threatened.

They also happened to be child-geniuses. 11 and 12 year olds aren’t supposed to know about ancient extinct languages, have the strength to row a huge ship that has run aground and make wise life decisions in a dark tunnel with parents conveniently out of the way. You may get tired of hearing , “Hey guys!” I suppose the title should have given me a hint about what would happen in the end, but I must admit I found the end a little annoying.

If you really liked 39 Clues but without the gruesome bits, or the Magic Tree House series, then this might be the book for you!

Overall Rating: 3/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 0/10

Audience: Ages 6 and up

Top 5 2015 Books

Hi readers! Sorry to leave you in the lurch during the holidays, but I’m back! 2015 has been an amazing year, filled with lots of good stories. So, to start the new year, here are some of the best books I reviewed in 2015.

  1. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

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2. The Marvels, also by Brian Selznick

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3. The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry

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4. The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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5. The Wanderer, by Sharon Creech

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What were your favorite books read in 2015?

 

Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool

When Abilene Tucker shows up on a train in Manifest, Kansas by herself, the sign reads, “Manifest: A Town With a Past”. Strange; that isn’t what her daddy Gideon told her it said. In fact, there are a lot of things Gideon told her that don’t match up about Manifest, the town where he grew up. Looking for more clues about Gideon around Manifest, Abilene is surprised to find that there is more to this town than meets the eye.

Tales of the mysterious ‘Rattler’ begin to pop up after Abilene finds a box of knick-knacks under the floorboards of a church. With her two new friends, Abilene begins a hunt to find out what happened to the Rattler, and Gideon, twenty years ago. Walking down the Path to Perdition, Abilene must face the reality the maybe Gideon isn’t coming back for her.

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My first inclination with this book was yes, it was very good. Well written, with interesting background and secret pasts and mysterious dodgy citizens. A well thought out plot, and lots of research. Basically, everything that a person with refined taste in style raves over, like a librarian or an English teacher that will assign it as reading, because it contains everything they’re looking for: history, character building and ethnic diversity. While I don’t consider my own tastes “refined” in any way, I am trying to look at this book from several different angles: the critical, factual perfectionist editor angle, and the potential forced to read this in Junior High angle (which I was not, but the Newberry status of the book makes it the perfect candidate).

From the critical standpoint, I have absolutely nothing to say that was bad on a technicality. The writing style was unique, the story well-told, and an overall good feeling of coming together-ness from a town that fell apart 20 years earlier during WWI.

But (again, theoretically, I am not this kid), coming from the perspective of a kid who loves the Hunger Games and Maze Runner and all the other gripping popular teen fiction that lacks finesse, this book is going to be the book that puts them to sleep. “Why should I care about topics like character building or ethnic diversity?”

Personally, I liked this book. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, but I thought it was deep enough to enjoy, especially for a children’s book. It’s sort like the next step up from the American Girl series, but better and less girly. If you really enjoyed those books, then this is your cup of tea.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: 8 and up

The Marvels, by Brian Selznick

In 1766 a tale, told in pictures, reveals the story of the Marvels. Beginning with Billy Marvel, survivor of a shipwreck at sea, the saga of theater-bound generations are not spoken, but shown descendant after descendant.

Fast forward to 1990. Joseph Jervis has runaway from school to find his Uncle Albert, an unknown relative who might just hold the key to the adventure Joseph is looking for. Upon arrival, Joseph finds that it isn’t his uncle, but the house he lives in, that brings more mystery about his family’s past than he even knew existed.

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When I said that the first story was told in pictures, I meant it. Brian Selznick himself sketched over 300 pages of pictures, so don’t be intimidated by this book’s size. The total amount of time it took to read this book isn’t very long, even if you take your time soaking in the pictures. Also, don’t get to thinking that this is a picture book; the plot is too big for that.

It was such a beautiful story. This is one of the books where you get so invested in characters that it’s hard to let the book end, especially the illustrations. I was really struck with the emotions which aren’t really said in the book, but once you take a minute to see what’s going on on the inside, almost a secret second plot, things like grief, overwhelming loss, and seeing things in a deeper sense even if it’s only inside your head become apparent.

One of the more interesting things about this story is that, all in all, there was a lot of plot for the amount of story that happened, but that wasn’t actually a lot. If you could pack the entire book into a summary, you could, but that awesome sense of unfolding doesn’t happen. Like I said, the actual read time isn’t long but in the end it turns out to be so simple that it makes you wonder at how well it is written.

Another fantastic book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which still is one of my favorite books of all time. The review is here. I look forward to reading Wonderstruck.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Violence: 1/10

Language: 2/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10 (It is briefly stated that two men were in a relationship, but I was surprised by the way it played out. It could fly over some kid’s heads it was so brief, but then again it might not. For me it didn’t take away from the book at all.)

Audience: Ages 10 and up; the general themes are too grim for anyone younger. Personal taste can vary hugely as to what age can read this.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

Hugo has kept the secret of his notebook from everyone he knows, even if he doesn’t know many people at all. But especially from his uncle, his only living relative. Arguably, Hugo’s very existence of living among the clocks in the walls of the train station in Paris is a secret, keeping them well-oiled and running.

When Hugo’s Uncle Claude leaves and doesn’t come back to the train station, Hugo begins to wonder what will happen if the clocks stop working. He knows how to fix them, for the most part, but what will happen if the station inspector finds out he’s living alone? It would be straight to the orphanage, and then the secret of the notebook and what Hugo hides would be lost forever.

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Have you seen this movie yet? If you’ve only just heard about it, please, please, please read the book first! The movie adaptation, named Hugo, is a relatively good movie, but it is just so much more awesome once you know the story. There is a lot left out, and the story is just told in a different way that keeps the mystery much better.

There are so many good things to say about this book! I’ve only read the book through the audio, narrated by Jeff Woodman (who is a personal family favorite), and to this day The Invention of Hugo Cabret is my dad’s favorite book and probably goes down in our history of books as ‘One of the bests’. I am looking forward to checking out the book, because it has only just now come to my attention that the book has beautiful illustrations as well. Double whammy!

Technically, this is historical fiction because it takes place sometime in the 1930’s, and there was some history involved which I would rather not say, but the story didn’t feel as involved with the rest of history as you would think. In other words, it doesn’t feel like your typical historical fiction.

The way the story unfolds is just fantastic, and even though I hesitate to say it is an action/adventure type story, it still had us on the edge of our seat as the mystery of who Hugo was is discovered. The way the tension builds into an inescapable fiasco is so perfect I don’t know what to say. Other than READ IT.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 7 and up

The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry

The Willoughby’s are an old-fashioned kind of family. The four Willoughby children do things old-fashioned children do; they go to school, they live in an old house, and they read books about other old-fashioned children in which most of them have no-nonsense nannies, find babies in baskets, have rich parents in a mansion, or no parents at all.

The Willoughby children decide that, yes, they should be orphans and make their way in the world like so many other old-fashioned children have in books. No, they do not like their parents very much. While scheming to somehow get rid of their parents, little do they know that their parents have a plot to get rid of their children at the same time.

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The whole book was tongue-in-cheek, and more hilarious than I can even say! Many people compare the style of the story to Lemony Snickett, but I thought The Willoughby’s was far funnier. Would it actually bother you that the parents don’t like their own children? Or that they attempt to get rid of them? It shouldn’t; this book was much too hilarious to read into the actuality of orphan-hood.

The narrator was very good; not so much the voices he gives the characters, which are relatively limited, but he has a way of stating the funniest sentences in a matter-of-fact way, the very way the children do when they are trying to be serious and don’t think themselves very funny at all.

Last note: there is a lot of humor that would fly way over young children’s heads, and arguably, the entire concept of the book. Would a 6 year old find the idea of parents wanting to get rid of their children, or children praying death omens over their parents head funny? It could be taken way too seriously by some. Kids who like old-fashioned kinds of stories will appreciate it.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 2/10

Audience: 8 and up