Review & Giveaway: The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman

the glass casketTitle: The Glass Casket

Author: McCormick Templeman

Publisher: Random House

Pub. Date: February 11, 2014

Genre: Young Adult

Rec. Age Level: 14+

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Life in Nag’s End is steady and predictable for Rowan Rose and her best friend Tom Parstle, until the day five riders thunder through town bound for Begger’s Drift, a place rumored forsaken by the Goddess. The arrival and subsequent sinister disappearance of the riders mark both the arrival of beautiful and mysterious Fiona Eira and the beginning of evil’s descent upon the superstitious village of Nag’s End. Rowan’s gentle scholarly father grows suddenly cold and distant, distracted by something he keeps closely guarded in his study, and forbids Rowan from speaking to Fiona, who she discovers is her estranged cousin. When Tom first sees Fiona, he falls suddenly and irrevocably in love with the dark-haired, scarlet-lipped beauty and begs Rowan to break her father’s commandment and convince Fiona to meet with him. As the youth of Nag’s End experience first love, unexpected pain, and dream of happy endings, a dark and violent force creeps into locked rooms, leaving nightmarish scenes and death in its wake. When tragedy strikes, madness and fear reach a fever pitch among the town’s inhabitants as they seek to unmask the evil in their midst. With THE GLASS CASKET, McCormick Templeman gives readers an ominous and horrific fairy tale filled with the darkest, bloodiest bits of their nightmares.

I have very mixed feelings about McCormick Templeman’s THE GLASS CASKET. On one hand, I found it impossible to put down. I felt compelled to unravel the mystery surrounding the disturbing deaths plaguing the people of Nag’s End; the horror and mystery aspects of the novel are remarkably well done. As Templeman demonstrated with her debut novel, THE LITTLE WOODS, and proved once again with this sophomore offering, her writing is sumptuous and richly detailed. I found it easy to imagine the setting and characters of THE GLASS CASKET as I read, an aspect that made the horror elements of the novel especially frightening.

My disappointment with the novel stems from the characters. I found it impossible to connect with any of them. I, quite honestly, loathed them all… On multiple occasions, I was so frustrated that I nearly gave up on the novel. It sometimes felt that Templeman was employing character idiocy and horrible communication to further suspend the mystery, which might be fine if this tactic didn’t make the characters so unbearable. In retrospect, I realize that the characters are very much products of their upbringing within the village. They’re quick to judge, with those judgments, more often than not, grounded in superstitions and first impressions rather than careful observations and rational thought. But Rowan, the girl who dreams of escaping Nag’s End and who claims to be above this superstitious upbringing, is the worst of the lot! I might have been able to handle the others, but Rowan’s ridiculous reactions and shortsighted judgments proved too much for my patience.

Though I was extremely put off by the characters within THE GLASS CASKET, there were many elements that I appreciated, so I’m happy I read this one. I’ll definitely read Templeman’s next book, but with my fingers-crossed for characters that live nowhere near Nag’s End.

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Review: Minders by Michele Jaffe

mindersTitle: Minders

Author: Michele Jaffe

Publisher: Penguin

Pub. Date: January 30, 2014

Genre: Young Adult

Rec. Age Level: 12+

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For years, Sadie has worked with one ultimate goal in mind: being accepted into the prestigious Mind Fellowship program, a program that seeks to educate the future’s best minds. She knows little about the program, but what she does know – that the it pushes boundaries, selects only the best, and is a frontrunner in technological advancement – would make it a shining achievement on her already impressive resume. Sadie learns she will undergo a process in which her mind will connect with a randomly selected subject’s; she will see and feel everything he experiences, but he’ll have no idea she’s there. Sadie is expected to stay objective, to observe her subject without the bias of emotion, but she soon finds that task is much easier said than done. All she’s told about her subject, Ford, is that he’s on the fast track to criminality, information that immediately biases Sadie. Though privileged and sheltered, it doesn’t take long for Sadie to realize that people, even those from the wrong side of the tracks and with infuriatingly annoying tendencies, are complex… and that there’s always more than one side to every story. As the days she spends in Ford’s mind turn to weeks, she finds herself reevaluating the way she looks at the world. Pulled into his quest to solve his brother’s murder, Sadie is surprised to find herself feeling for Ford… and maybe even falling for him.

Oh, where to start with my love for this book? There’s crazy, advanced science, a mystery, dark threatening forces, gorgeous, crumbling Detroit architecture, and a complicated, swoon-worthy romance. What more could you want? Read this book!

Review: The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles

the lost planetTitle: The Lost Planet

Author: Rachel Searles

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan

Pub. Date: January 28, 2014

Genre: Middle Grade

Rec. Age Level: 8-12

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A boy wakes in a room he’s never seen before. In fact, he has no memory of anything… not even his name. It’s only after the man tending to him finds a chip embedded under the boy’s skin that his identity, or at least his name, is discovered: Chase Garrety. Armed with his name and little else, Chase sets out to unravel the mystery of how he ended up on the planet Trucon, wounded and without his memory. He teams up with Parker, the boy who found him unconscious and in mortal danger of the monsters that plague Trucon. Parker talks Chase into “borrowing” a spaceship that belongs to Parker’s mysterious benefactor, in the process, giving the slip to his cyborg nanny/bodyguard. What starts as a joyride soon morphs into danger when Trucon is destroyed in a fiery explosion and the boys unwittingly rescue the man accused of coordinating the attack. As secrets are revealed and Chase is driven by the faintly remembered phrase, “Guide the star,” the boys are no longer sure who to trust. Met by danger at every turn, Chase and Parker struggle to stay one step ahead of those who seek them, including the government, the mob, the accused terrorist, and even Parker’s guardian.

Nonstop action and an absorbing premise make THE LOST PLANET a thrilling MG debut from Rachel Searles. These characteristics, paired with fast pacing, also make this title a great pick for reluctant readers who prefer to jump right into the action or don’t have the patience for a long introduction. The well-placed, surprising twists within THE LOST PLANET will keep readers engaged as they struggle with Chase to unravel his past and determine which forces within the novel seek to save or destroy him.

Review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

ophelia and the marvelous boyTitle: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Author: Karen Foxlee

Publisher: Random House

Pub. Date: January 28, 2014

Genre: Middle Grade

Rec. Age Level: 8-12

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Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard, her sister, Alice, and their father, the world’s leading expert on swords, leave home for a foreign city where it always snows. Ophelia’s father has been hired to curate a museum exhibit and, while exploring the museum, a confusing, drafty place full of curiosities, Ophelia discovers an abandoned room. Within the room is a small door. On the other side of the door, is a boy. As you might expect, this is no ordinary boy, but a Marvelous Boy, the prisoner of the sinister Snow Queen. The Queen has kept him prisoner for near 300 years and he’s been waiting for Ophelia. Only she can help him defeat the Queen… and time is running out. Scientifically-minded Ophelia must look within herself – and to the memory of mother – to find the magic she holds within herself. A gorgeous retelling of The Snow Queen and an unforgettable story about friendship, love, and grief, OPHELIA AND THE MARVELOUS BOY is sure to be loved by readers of all ages.

Ophelia has much to overcome in her journey to defeat the Snow Queen. Not only must she brave Misery birds, ghosts, a cold museum director, and other sinister and fantastical beasts, she has to overcome the grief of the recent loss of her mother and her own leaning towards empirical truths. Ophelia’s mother, even in death, has a lasting impact on Ophelia and her struggle to find magic and hope in the cold world of the Snow Queen. When she doubts herself or the Marvelous Boy, Ophelia looks to memories of her mother, a writer who was always ready to believe in fantastical and everyday magic. And, in time, she looks within herself, where she finds her mother is always present.

I adored the setting of OPHELIA AND THE MARVELOUS BOY. Foxlee’s words paint an amazingly detailed world full of wonder and, of course, magic. Not much is known about the city, except that it’s always snowing there, but I couldn’t help but imagine the museum was in a large Russian city. There are gorgeous black and white illustrations within the book by Yoko Tanaka that beautifully complement the text, giving readers a visual treat in addition to Foxlee’s lyrical descriptions.

I urge you to read OPHELIA AND THE MARVELOUS BOY, regardless of your age. Its magic will transport you, leaving you satisfied even as you mourn leaving Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy behind.

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Don’t miss my interview with OPHELIA author, Karen Foxlee, here!

Review: Avalon by Mindee Arnett

avalonTitle: Avalon

Author: Mindee Arnett

Publisher: Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins

Pub. Date: January 21, 2014

Genre: Young Adult

Rec. Age Level: 13+

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Jeth Seagrave used to live a normal, relatively comfortable life, but that all changed after his parents were accused of treason and killed. Left in the dubious care of his uncle, who gambled away Avalon, Jeth’s parents’ ship, and, by extension, Jeth’s future, Jeth is left with few options. Jeth captains a crew of teenaged mercenaries who work for one of the most powerful crime bosses in the galaxy. The ragtag team is unassuming and remarkably good at their job: stealing unsecured metatech, a hot ticket item on the black market, that allows ships to travel quickly and under the radar of the government. Jeth saves every penny he earns and dreams of one day buying Avalon back from the man who controls him. His dreams are almost within reach when he’s offered one final job, use Avalon to travel into a dangerous patch of galaxy, where rumors of missing ships and strange happening abound, and locate a lost ship with invaluable metatech aboard. What seems like a straightforward, if dangerous, job soon spirals out of control when Jeth uncovers hidden truths about his parents, the government, and the technology he’s spent years hijacking.

One of the biggest reasons I picked up AVALON is how similar it sounded to Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY. And, I can assure you, it has the same feel. My only complaint? The action in AVALON is much slower. Honestly, it was too slow for me. I could easily set this book aside and never felt any great pull to pick it up again. I kept hoping that it would pick up, but, in my opinion, it never did.

Otherwise, I enjoyed AVALON. The characters are interesting, the premise promising, and the background compelling. But, without the pull of action, this book fell short of my expectations.

Would I read another book set in this world? Possibly, if it didn’t depend heavily on the events of AVALON… because I worry that I won’t remember enough detail from this book and it’s unlikely that I would reread this book first. If there was another book that could function as a standalone, I’d give it a shot because I genuinely do enjoy Arnett’s writing and the premise of AVALON.

This book wasn’t well-suited to my tastes, but I think there are some readers out there who will really love it.

Review: Almost Super by Marion Jensen

f1e07-almostsuperTitle: Almost Super

Author: Marion Jensen

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pub. Date: January 23, 2014

Genre: Middle Grade

Rec. Age Level: 8-12

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Rafter and Benny Bailey have been waiting for this day, February 29th, since the moment they learned their family was made up of superheroes. The moment the clock hits 4:23pm, Benny and Rafter’s lives will forever change as they inherit the superpowers that will allow them to protect their city from the villainous Johnsons. their dreams take a nosedive, however, when the boys end up with rather useless powers, crushing their dreams of supersuits and heroics.

After an encounter with classmate and nemesis Juanita Johnson, they learn Juanita was also unlucky in the power department. To top it off, their conversations with Juanita brings new truths to light and challenges everything the boys believe in. They’re forced to ask: which family is the real threat to their town? The Johnsons…? The Baileys…? Or someone else entirely?

I can’t stop talking about Marion Jensen’s debut, ALMOST SUPER. Hilarious and packed with unforgettable characters, this book has immediately found a place in my heart and, best of all, into my everyday life. After telling various people about the book and the obligatory fist shake by the Bailey’s upon mentioning the Johnsons, we’ve developed a bit of a habit of blaming the Johnsons when things go wrong, accompanied, of course, with a fist shake. But ALMOST SUPER reminds readers that first impressions and secondhand accounts aren’t always the best source of information and, perhaps, the Johnsons aren’t truly the rightful recipients of our blame.

A fantastic adventure with a great message about the true meaning of bravery and heroics, ALMOST SUPER is a must read!

Review: Wanderville by Wendy McClure

wandervilleTitle: Wanderville

Author: Wendy McClure

Publisher: Razorbill/Penguin

Pub. Date: January 23, 2014

Genre: Middle Grade

Rec. Age Level: 8-12

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WANDERVILLE is set in the 1900s and introduces readers to Frances, Harold, and Jack, three kids from New York bound for Kansas on an orphan train. Frances and her little brother Harold have been living in horrible conditions since their Aunt Mare abandoned them. Both hope for a better life out West, though Frances is skeptical of the fate that awaits them. Jack, not technically an orphan, has been sent away by his destitute parents after the loss of his older brother in a tragic factory fire. The three meet aboard the train, where Jack comes to Harold rescue as he’s being picked on by a bully. Jack and Frances are both convinced nothing good awaits them in Kansas, so they hatch a plan to escape the train and make their way back to New York. Dodging the local sheriff, the three escape. Beginning their trek back east, the three runaways literally stumble across Alexander, another escaped orphan. Alexander confirms their fears: nothing good was waiting at the end of their cross-country train ride. But, Alex explains, he has the perfect place for Frances, Jack, and Harold to live. A safe place. A place with no adults. A place all their own. A place where kids like them are always welcome. Wanderville. Population: 4. Everything is perfect until Harold is captured by the worst people imaginable, the Pratcherds, the very family Alex has escaped from. Now Frances, Jack, and Alex must rescue Harold, without getting caught themselves.

Creativity and resilience, key themes found within Wendy McClure’s newest novel, play a large part in the creation of Wanderville. The town, at first glance, might not seem like much, but if you look closely, it starts to take shape. Built with bits and pieces, and no small amount of  imagination, the town has everything our four runaways need: food stores (restocked frequently by “liberating” items from the nearby town, right under the sheriff’s nose), a safe place to sleep (both a remarkably comfy area on the ground and hammocks), room to make their own decisions (the courtroom is a great place to determine the laws of Wanderville), and the freedom to explore and play (plus determine how they’ll take on the sheriff if he tracks them down). After all the hardship these four kids have endured, Wanderville is a refuge. A place where no adult can hurt or betray them, a place entirely their own.

WANDERVILLE allows young readers to learn about and explore history, specifically the realities of orphan trains and the harsh lives of young children in the early 1900s, while allowing them to embark on an adventure with plucky characters their own age that they’ll find easy to relate to. Readers will easily compare their lives to those of Frances, Jack, and Harold, finding both similarities and differences. The characters in WANDERVILLE deal with bullies, love their siblings, enjoy reading and learning, etc, all things kids today can easily relate to. But there are notable differences too: Jack works in a factory under harsh conditions, Frances and Harold are briefly taken in many times before being abandoned, and all three are shipped across the country where they are promised a better life, but where a fate of a hard life as cheap labor awaits them.

A fantastic new historically set adventure, readers are sure to love both the adventure and history included in WANDERVILLE. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next for Frances, Jack, Alex, and Harold in the next part of their story, slated for a fall 2014 release.