Monday, April 29, 2013

The 13th Sign Book Review

Author: Kristin O’Donnell Tubb. Release date: 2013. Publisher: Feiwel & Friends. ISBN: 9780312583521.

Annotation: After she accidentally invokes Ophiuchus, the thirteenth Zodiac sign, thirteen-year-old Jalen must battle the other twelve signs who are determined to make sure that Ophiuchus doesn’t remain a permanent part of the Zodiac.

Personal thoughts: I have always been interested in the Zodiac and found many of the character traits it assigns to be fairly accurate, so when I heard about The 13th Sign I was immediately intrigued. The book is a very quick read and I would easily be able to recommend it to an upper elementary/early middle school-er who wants something fun and fast-paced. I do somewhat wish the author would have developed the characters a little bit more, but the lack of depth works if it’s simply being read for entertainment purposes. I’m looking forward to seeing what Kristin O’Donnell Tubb comes up with next!  

Plot summary: Every year on her birthday, Jalen and her grandmother, Nina, visit Madame Beausoleil’s shop and have a horoscope reading. This year, her thirteenth-birthday, Nina is in the hospital battling breast cancer, so Jalen and her best friend, Ellie, have decided to continue the tradition and get Jalen’s horoscope read. While exploring the books in Madame Beausoleil’s quirky shop, Jalen discovers a mysterious book hidden at the back of a shelf called The Keypers of the Zodiack. She and Ellie purchase the book and take it home where they discover that it contains not twelve but thirteen Zodiac signs. The thirteenth, Ophiuchus the serpent, would be Jalen’s actual Zodiac sign were it included in the calendar. Jalen doesn’t realize she is about to find out exactly what it means to be an Ophiuchus, however, when she and Ellie accidentally unlock the thirteenth sign and the entire Zodiac calendar shifts. Everyone now has a new sign, causing personality changes around the world. Surgeons are now timid, unable to perform their jobs, once brave policemen hide in the shadows and airline pilots are afraid to fly. Jalen, Ellie and Ellie’s older brother, Brennan, now find themselves in the middle of a battle between the other twelve Zodiac signs who have descended from the stars to make sure that Ophiuchus doesn’t come into power and make the calendar shift permanent. Can Jalen return Ophiuchus to its rightful place and prevent the world from being irrevocably altered?

Review: Historical fiction author Kristin O’Donnell Tubb ventures into the realm of fantasy with her latest novel, The 13th Sign. Set in the already mystical town of New Orleans, the author weaves an interesting and unique story of Zodiac signs gone rogue. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to the consequences Jalen, Ellie and Brennan must deal with after Jalen accidentally invokes Ophiuchus (a constellation that does actually exist), causing the personalities of everyone on Earth to shift. Readers who aren’t interested in the Zodiac or don’t put much stock into its ability to predict or guide a person’s life will likely not find much in the novel to enjoy. There is a limited amount of backstory to Jalen and her relationship with her mother, grandmother and the father that disappeared years earlier. There is also a very tiny bit of romance between Jalen and Brennan, as well as a small amount of development in Jalen’s friendship with Ellie. Apart from these tiny subplots, however, the plot surrounds Jalen battling the various Zodiac signs. Readers who find this intriguing will enjoy the different ways the author introduces familiar names like Gemini, Leo and Capricorn, as well as the methods Jalen must use to defeat them. Since the novel never really gets too deep and is, instead, more of an action/adventure story, it is a good choice for older elementary/early middle school readers who want something fun and entertaining. The book might also be a good extra credit project in a science class to spark interest in astronomy and the history of constellations.

Genre:  Fiction/Fantasy

Reading level: Grade 5+

Similar titles: N/A  

Themes:  Zodiac, horoscopes, adventure, danger, friendship, cancer, New Orleans.

Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from Kirkus and Booklist.   

Series Information: N/A

Discussion questions:

-         Do you think the Zodiac is accurate? Why or why not?

-          Why do you think Jalen was unhappy with being a Sagittarius?

-         Research the constellation Ophiuchus. Is anything that the author mentions in the book about the constellation true?

-         Look at the two different Zodiac calendars in the back of the book. Would your sign have changed when Jalen involved the thirteenth sign? What would it have changed to? Do you think it would have impacted your personality?

-          Which of the Zodiac signs was your favorite in the book? Why?

-         Do you think Jalen did the right thing with Ophiuchus’ stone? Why or why not?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ten Book Review

Author: Gretchen McNeil. Release date: 2012. Publisher: Balzer + Bray. ISBN: 9780062118783.

Annotation: Meg and her best friend Minnie have been invited to the party of the year at the isolated vacation home of the uber-popular Jessica Lawrence. Everything seems to be set for a spectacular weekend of fun, but after the guests begin to die in mysterious “accidents,” Meg and the rest of the partygoers must find out if there is a killer in their midst before it’s too late.

Personal thoughts: When I read the book jacket for this novel I was super excited to pick it up. An Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery for teens isn’t something you see every day. Unfortunately, while I found the book to be well-written and there were some creepy moments, I found the mystery to be far too predictable. I am by no means a mystery novel buff or an expert at figuring out who did what, but I had the plot figured out a few chapters in. I’m not sure if the mystery was intentionally not too complicated, but there really was no suspense. I do think that this book might be a good choice for a reluctant reader or for a teen who has never experienced a murder mystery novel, but other than that I would skip this one.   

Plot summary: Meg and her best friend Minnie have been invited to the party of the year at the isolated vacation home of the uber-popular Jessica Lawrence. Jessica’s family owns a mansion on Henry Island off the coast of Washington, and only a select group received the invitation to stay at the parentless house for the weekend. Meg is used to being in Minnie’s shadow, especially when it comes to handsome football-star T.J. Fletcher.  Minnie has been trying to get with T.J. for years, but Meg has never told her that she is secretly in love with him as well. To Meg’s surprise, T.J. was also invited to Jessica’s party, along with his best friend, and Minnie’s ex, Gunner, and nine other people. Although there’s a storm raging outside and they’re the only house around, everything seems set for a weekend of fun. Meg soon realizes, however, that the party is not what it seems. The guests begin to die in mysterious ways one-by-one, each death accompanied by a slash painted in dripping red on the wall. It soon becomes clear that everyone who was invited to the party is there for a reason, and that there is a murderer in the house who is seeking vengeance. But what is the link between the partygoers, and can they survive long enough to determine who the killer is?

Review: In the vein of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None comes this story by veteran author Gretchen McNeil. Murder mysteries are not something you find too often in young adult literature, and the McNeil puts up a valiant effort in transforming this concept for a young adult audience. While there are some genuinely creepy moments in the novel and it is well-written, the mystery of the killer’s identity and why the party guests were invited to the house on Henry Island is, unfortunately, very obvious from the beginning of the story. Since the primary objective of the book is to keep the reader guessing as to how the events will unfold, the fact that there isn’t much mystery diminishes the good points of the novel. The relationship between Meg and her best friend Minnie is interesting, particularly since Minnie struggles with bipolar disorder and Meg is her self-imposed caretaker. Expanding on this aspect of the story would have added a lot more depth, but the author never really gets into it at more than a surface level. The romance between Meg and T.J. is also enjoyable, but never gets a chance to truly blossom either, with the author focusing more on the murders. For teens who have never read a mystery or who want something that goes by quickly, Ten is a good option that will, at least, keep them entertained. For readers who want something with a little more depth, however, there isn’t enough meat on the bones of this novel to make it a worthwhile read.

Genre:  Mystery

Reading level: Grade 8+

Similar titles: Empty Coffin series by Gregg Olsen, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga.  

Themes:  Murder, mystery, revenge, friendship, suicide.

Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from School Library Journal and Booklist.  

Series Information: N/A

Discussion questions:

-         How would you describe Meg and Minnie’s relationship? Have you ever had a friend like Minnie?

-          If you were Meg, would you have gone to the party? Why or why not?

-         Do you think Meg did the right thing in not going to Homecoming with T.J.? Why or why not?

-         Who was your favorite of the partygoers? Your least favorite? Why? Do you think any of them deserved to be killed?

-         Were you surprised to learn the identity of the killer? Why do you think they did what they did?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Masque of the Red Death Book Review

Author: Bethany Griffin. Release date: 2012. Publisher: Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 9780062107794.

Annotation: The world is in ruins after a deadly plague has killed most of the population. Araby and other wealthy members of society who can afford masks to protect them from the contagion spend most of their time in darkened clubs, trying to pretend like the outside world isn’t full of death. Araby’s world changes, however, when she meets Elliott, her best friend April’s older brother, who has a plan to free the city from the ruthless Prince Prospero.

Personal thoughts: I hadn’t heard much about this book prior to picking it up, but I am a big fan of reinvented pieces of classic literature so I was excited to learn about the influence of Edgar Allan Poe on the novel. Although I did, in general, enjoy the book, unfortunately, I can’t say it was one of my favorites. I thought the author did a great job establishing a really tense, uncomfortable atmosphere, which fit the events of the story perfectly, but, for me, that was the best part of the book. I didn’t really get Araby having a romance with either Will or Elliott. I found Araby’s parents, her friend April and even Prince Prospero to be interesting characters, but the novel focused more on Will and Elliott so that didn’t really help much. I would probably recommend this novel to teens who are interested in post-apocalyptic and dystopian reads, but there are others I would likely suggest first.  

Plot summary: After a deadly plague has killed most of the Earth’s population, society is left in ruin. Araby Worth and the rest of the city don’t know if they’re the only ones left alive, but, thanks to Araby’s scientist father, the wealthy are protected from the contagion by specially designed masks. While the poor continue to die, Araby and her best friend April live in the penthouse of one of the city’s nicest buildings, spending most of their time at the Debauchery Club, a darkened den full of drugs, alcohol and sex. Despite her life of relative luxury, Araby is haunted by the memory of her brother, Finn, who caught the sickness before her father invented the masks and died years earlier. Everything changes, however, when Araby meets Elliott, April’s older brother. April and Elliott are niece and nephew of the ruthless Prince Prospero, the city’s ruler who lives in an isolated castle and kills anyone who questions his authority. Elliott is determined to stage a revolution against his uncle, providing masks to everyone in the city along with food, clean water and proper shelter. Elliott needs Araby’s help to bring his plan to light, but Araby is conflicted when she becomes close with Will, the handsome and mysterious manager of the Debauchery Club.

Review: Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story of the same name, Masque of the Red Death is a tense start to a dystopian series for young adults. Set in the not-so-distant future, the post-apocalyptic world of Araby Worth is gritty, bloody, and cold. High-school English teacher turned author Bethany Griffin does a good job of creating a very uncomfortable atmosphere for the story to take place in. Puss oozes from the open sores of the sick, dead bodies are unceremoniously tossed into the carts of corpse collectors, and even the luxurious lives of Araby and her best friend April are bleak. The author is also successful at developing the character of Araby herself. Araby’s life is completely dominated by thoughts of her brother Finn whose death she feels responsible for. Araby prefers to spend her time in a drug-induced stupor where she can escape her painful memories, but she begins to grow and change after she gets to know Will and his younger siblings and when she becomes involved in Elliott’s plot to overthrow Prince Prospero. Where the novel is somewhat lacking, unfortunately, is in developing the other characters in the story and their relationships with Araby. Will and Elliott are somewhat explored, but their romances with Araby are fuzzy. Does she really like either of them? Why? Araby’s parents are two characters who hold a lot of potential to be interesting, but aren’t given enough page time to really be flushed out. Araby’s best friend, April, is arguably the most successfully developed support character, but really doesn’t have much of a role in the story. Overall, Masque of the Red Death proves to be a bit of a mixed bag, with a strong setting and central character but a weaker plot and supporting cast. The sequel, Dance of the Red Death, is set to be released in June 2013.   

Genre:  Science Fiction/Dystopian

Reading level: Grade 7+

Similar titles: Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch, The Pledge by Kimberly Derting, Legend by Marie Lu, Starters by Lissa Price, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi.

Themes:  Dystopian, post-apocalyptic, plague, death, grief, rebellion, romance.  

Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from Kirkus.   

Series Information: First installment in Red Death Saga. Second installment, Dance of the Red Death, set to be released June 11, 2013.

Discussion questions:

-         Read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, Masque of the Red Death. How is this novel influenced by Poe?

-          Explain the vow Araby made after Finn’s death. How does it impact the events of the story?

-         Why do you think Araby blames herself for the death of her brother?

-        Compared to much of the city, Araby’s life is luxurious and safe. Explain why this doesn’t make Araby happy. Do you think that money can buy happiness?

-        Who do you think Araby feels a stronger connection with: Will or Elliott? Why?

-        Describe the relationship between Araby’s mother and Prince Prospero.

-         Were you surprised to learn the identity of Malcontent? Why or why not?

-         What would you like to see happen in the sequel, Dance of the Red Death?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart: A Novel of Magic Most Foul Book Review

Author: Leanna Renee Hieber. Release date: 2012. Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire. ISBN: 9781402262036.

Annotation: After freeing him from his prison inside a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Natalie and Lord Denbury are on the run, seeking refuge with one of Denbury’s longtime friends in Saint Paul. They soon discover, however, that their troubles are far from over, and the Society that cursed Lord Denbury is now working on a much larger, and more sinister, plan.

Personal thoughts: Darker Still was one of my favorite young adult books that I’ve read within the past few years. I was really excited for the sequel, so much so that I held off on reading it for awhile so that I could really enjoy it when I finally got to crack it open. Unfortunately, I was exceptionally unimpressed with The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart. I’m not sure what happened, it just took a complete turn into dullsville for me. Where Darker Still was original and charming, the sequel was very blah. I am really sad about how much I didn’t enjoy it because I still really love the first novel. Hopefully the author can turn it around for the third installment, but I do have to say, it’s unlikely I will bother completing the series.

Plot summary: Lord Denbury is free from his prison inside a cursed painting and the demon who was inhabiting his body has been vanquished. Now he and Natalie are on the run, seeking refuge with one of Denbury’s longtime friends in St. Paul. Not sure where the answer to their troubles lies, they are shocked upon arriving in St. Paul to learn that the Society that cursed Lord Denbury in the first place now has much larger and more sinister plans in store. It seems that the Society has capture Rachel Horowitz, a friend of Natalie’s from New York, who cannot hear or speak but has the ability to communicate with spirits. Through visions and premonitions, Natalie is able to see Rachel being held captive, forced to draw spirits out of objects, mementos, even body parts. What is the Society planning and how does it relate to the demon that once cursed Lord Denbury?

Review: Author Leanna Renee Hieber continues her love-affair with Victorian literature in this sequel to her 2011 novel, Darker Still. Unfortunately, where her first novel shone in its marriage of mystery, romance and suspense, the sequel falls markedly short. There are several reasons why The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart is not a successful follow-up to its predecessor. The first is that Darker Still had a very intriguing and well-written plot: Lord Denbury’s imprisonment in the painting, Natalie’s inability to communicate due to being mute, a murder mystery on the streets of Victorian New York. The plot of the sequel, however, is muddled, convoluted and not very entertaining. The “big reveal” at the end of the novel is very anti-climactic, and the build-up to that point is lackluster. Characters are introduced then never really expanded upon, and the romance between Natalie and Lord Denbury doesn’t really go anywhere. The charm of the setting in Darker Still is also absent, with little attention given to the Victorian surroundings and sensibilities that the author obviously cares for. There is an attempt at a cliffhanger that does little to motivate the reader to want to pick up the third novel which is set to be released in November of 2013. Overall, a disappointing follow-up to a story that had loads of potential.  

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Mystery

Reading level: Grade 7+

Similar titles: Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury, Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey.   

Themes:  Curses, demons, secret societies, ghosts, psychic abilities, Victorian era, New York City.

Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from Booklist.   

Series Information: Second installment in Magic Most Foul series. First installment, Darker Still, released in 2011. Third installment, The Double Life of Incorporate Things, set to be released November 2013.    

Discussion questions:

-         How would you explain what the Society was trying to do with Rachel and her abilities?

-          Do you trust Mrs. Northe? Why or why not?

-         Do you think Natalie still struggles with her speech?

-         What was the significance of the runes in the story?

-          Who was your favorite character? Why?

-         Do you enjoy this novel more or less than Darker Still? Why?

-         What would you like to see happen in the third novel?