Review: Wild Born by Brandon Mull

Animals Cover_MOCKUP.inddWILD BORN (SPIRIT ANIMALS, BOOK 1)
Brandon Mull
Scholastic Books
Publication Date: September 10, 2013

From the back cover:

Four children separated by vast distances all undergo the same ritual, watched by cloaked strangers. Four flashes of light erupt, and from them emerge the unmistakable shapes of incredible beasts – a wolf, a leopard, a panda, a falcon. Suddenly the paths of these children – and the world – have been changed for ever. Enter the world of Erdas, where every child who comes of age must discover if they have a spirit animal, a rare bond between human and beast that bestows great powers to both. A dark force has risen from distant and long-forgotten lands, and has begun an onslaught that will ravage the world. Now the fate of Erdas has fallen on the shoulders of four young strangers …and on you.

When I picked this book up for review, I had no idea this was going to be a multi-author series featuring some of the biggest names in children’s fiction. My boys had read and enjoyed Brandon Mull’s writing before (especially The Candy Shop War) and they love fantasy/adventure stories, so I knew this one was sure to be a winner with them. I was not wrong!

The book centers around four children from very different parts of the world, who drink of the nectar on their 11th birthday and discover that they have each called a spirit animal. This rare gift sets them on a journey to nurture the powers their animals bring in preparation for stopping a dark force that has risen from the past. It’s up to these very special children to save the world before it is destroyed, but are they up to the task?

Much of this book is basically used as set-up for the future books in the series, and as such, it spends huge chunks of time introducing the characters and foreshadowing their role in the upcoming conflict. By the time the story really gets rolling (about 2/3 of the way through) and the adventure takes off, we get a small glimpse of the action and conflict to come and then, before we know it, the book is over.

However, the premise is fresh and exciting, and the characters are unique and likeable, which makes me invested enough to see what the next book in the series has to offer. Middle Grade readers who love fantasy and adventure are sure to love this one!

Review: Relativity by Cristin Bishara

relativityRELATIVITY
Cristin Bishara
Walker Childrens
Publication Date: September 10, 2013

From the back cover:

If Ruby Wright could have her way, her dad would never have met and married her stepmother Willow, her best friend George would be more than a friend, and her mom would still be alive. Ruby knows wishes can’t come true; some things just can’t be undone. Then she discovers a tree in the middle of an Ohio cornfield with a wormhole to nine alternative realities.

Suddenly, Ruby can access completely different realities, each containing variations of her life—if things had gone differently at key moments. The windshield wiper missing her mother’s throat…her big brother surviving his ill-fated birth…her father never having met Willow. Her ideal world—one with everything and everyone she wants most—could be within reach. But is there such a thing as a perfect world? What is Ruby willing to give up to find out?

I’ve always been interested in the concept of wormholes and alternate realities, which is what drew me to RELATIVITY in the first place. The idea of Ruby finding a wormhole in a tree in the middle of an Ohio cornfield (which is just about as mundane a place to put a wormhole with the power to change the future!) is so creative and once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down.

I loved that Cristin Bishara made Ruby a complete math geek. Let’s face it, embracing one’s geekiness is an uncommon characteristic in a YA heroine, and although it can also make Ruby a bit hard to relate to at times, the fact that she is so happy in her own skin made for a very strong, interesting character.  The other thing Ms. Bishara does so well is the world-building. The history of the wormhole, the rules for traveling through it, the tiny little threads that run through the book — all are seamless and well written.

The weak spots in this book, for me, come from the fact that there is so much going on that it becomes difficult to really connect with Ruby and the choices she makes. And while I understand this comes from the limitations of page count and format, I would have loved for Ruby to spend more time in each of the alternate universes to bring more depth to her character and her internal conflict. I also would have loved to see George as a bigger part of the book. He is such a huge part of Ruby’s life, and yet, his role almost feels more like an after thought. I also felt a bit let-down at the way the book ended. It wrapped up far too nice and neatly, with no real explanation of how Ruby’s experience changed her. The remaining chapters would have been better spent focusing on her appreciation for what she has with her dad, Willow, George and yes, even her step-sister Kandy, then showing attitude with her therapist.

However, the premise of RELATIVITY still remains genius. We’ve all wondered how our life would be different if we’d made different choices. RELATIVITY explores that idea with a unique twist, and makes us realize that while we may never have a perfect world, sometimes the imperfect one is even sweeter.

 

Review: Countdown by Michelle Rowen

countdownCOUNTDOWN
Michelle Rowen
Harlequin Teen
Publication Date: October 1, 2013

From the back cover:

3 seconds left to live. Once the countdown starts, it cannot be stopped. 

2 pawns thrown into a brutal underground reality game. 

Kira Jordan survived her family’s murder and months on plague-devastated city streets with hard-won savvy and a low-level psi ability. She figures she can handle anything. Until she wakes up in a barren room, chained next to the notorious Rogan Ellis. 

1 reason Kira will never, ever trust Rogan. Even though both their lives depend on it. 

Their every move is controlled and televised for a vicious exclusive audience. And as Kira’s psi skill unexpectedly grows and Rogan’s secrets prove evermore deadly, Kira’s only chance of survival is to risk trusting him as much as her instincts. Even if that means running head-on into the one trap she can’t escape.

GAME OVER

The premise of COUNTDOWN reminded me so much of THE RUNNING MAN, a 1987 film (yes, I’m dating myself!) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, where convicted criminals must compete on a television show to escape death at the hands of professional killers. (Note: This movie is loosely based on a book of the same name written by Stephen King under the name Richard Bachman). Because of the similarity, I had to step out of my normal contemporary YA comfort zone and give this book a try.

The story opens with Kira waking up in a dark, unfamiliar place. She’s handcuffed to the wall, disoriented, and also not alone. A boy has been placed in the room with her — a criminal that is said to have murdered girls in cold blood. Before she can get her bearings, the countdown begins. From that moment on, Kira and Rogan are on the run, slaves to the clock, and although they’ve learned the hard way not to trust anyone, they must rely on each other if they’re going to figure out who is behind the Countdown and how to stop it before it stops them.

I appreciated the fast pace of this book. There’s never a dull moment and the plot never suffers from stagnation. Kira and Rogan are likeable enough characters and we get just enough sense of the world they inhabit to where we can follow along without being confused.

However, there is a lot going on here, between the rules of Countdown, the technology, Kira’s psi ability, Rogan’s backstory, and a dystopian society that the story begins to have kind of a kitchen sink feel to it. Because of this, it lacks in the world building and I never fully understood how the society came to be, who the important players were and what this elusive ‘Colony’ where Kira dreamed of living out her life was all about. I would have also liked to see her psi ability as a more integral part of the plot. It seemed thrown in there at the last minute, and in all honesty, the story would have been the same without it.

Having said that, I did enjoy the book. It was fun to step out into a dystopian world for a change and I found COUNTDOWN to be a great weekend read, filled with just enough thrills, chills and romance to keep me interested to the very end.

NOTE: This book was originally published in 2008 as an adult novel under the name Michelle Maddox. COUNTDOWN is a refreshed edition, re-imagined for the young adult market.

Review: Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

willscarletWILL IN SCARLET
Matthew Cody
Knopf Books For Young Readers
Publication Date: October 8, 2013

From the back cover:

Will Scarlet is on the run. 

Once the sheltered son of nobility, Will has become an exile. While his father, Lord Shackley, has been on the Crusades with King Richard, a treacherous plot to unseat Richard has swept across England, and Shackley House has fallen.

Will flees the only home he’s ever known into neighboring Sherwood Forest, where he joins the elusive gang of bandits known as the Merry Men. Among them are Gilbert, their cruel leader; a giant named John Little; a drunkard named Rob; and Much, an orphan girl disguised as a bandit boy.

This is the story of how a band of misfit outlaws become heroes of legend – thanks to one brave 13-year-old boy.

Recently, I’d mentioned to a friend that I was looking for some good boy-centric middle grade books for my two sons and she recommended Matthew Cody. We flew through his superhero series (SUPER and POWERLESS) and then took on THE DEAD GENTLEMAN. All three were fantastic reads, so when WILL IN SCARLET came up on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to review it. I’m happy to report that Matthew Cody has written another highly successful book. WILL IN SCARLET is a tale that is sure to appeal to kids and adults alike.

This ingenious Robin Hood retelling centers around thirteen-year-old Will Shackley who must enter the dark and forbidding Sherwood Forest after his home is taken over by treasonous rebels. There, he meets the infamous bandits know as the Merry Men and finds a place among them. But Will longs for revenge for his family and as he uses the Merry Men to achieve that goal, he begins to realize that all is not as he first believed in Knottingham. Now he must decide whether his need for revenge is greater than his conviction to right the horrible wrongs against the people.

Although the story starts out a bit slow, once the setup has been achieved and Will joins the Merry Men, the pace picks up and WILL IN SCARLET becomes very difficult to put down. Filled with adventure, danger and rich creativity, this book is perfect for those who are looking for a unique, swashbuckling tale that is more than just a good story. WILL IN SCARLET may be peppered with humor and non-stop action, but it is also a book that takes great care to impart valuable lessons about justice and fairness and doing the right thing no matter the cost. Here’s hoping for a sequel!

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

 

Review: Into the Whirlwind by Elizabeth Camden

intothewhirlwindINTO THE WHIRLWIND
Elizabeth Camden
Bethany House Publishers
Publication Date: August 1, 2013

From the back cover:

After her father’s death, Mollie Knox takes over his watchmaking company and uses her head for business to solidify the good name of the 57th Illinois Watch Company. Her future looks bright until the night her beloved city is destroyed in the legendary Great Chicago Fire. With her world crumbling around her, Molly must do whatever it takes to save her company in the aftermath of the devastating fire.

Zack Kazmarek is an influential attorney with powerful ties to the political, mercantile, and ethnic roots of Chicago. His only weakness is Mollie Knox, a woman who has always been just beyond his reach. However, all bets are off after the fire destroys Chicago, and Mollie is in desperate need of assistance. Just as Zack finally begins to pursue the woman he loves, competition arises in the form of a hero from her past who can provide the help she needs to rise from the ashes.

While Mollie struggles to rebuild, the two men battle for her heart. One has always loved her, but the other has the power to save her. In the race to rebuild the city, can she survive with her business and her heart intact?

It’s easy to see why Elizabeth Camden is a RITA nominated author! In INTO THE WHIRLWIND, she tells an engrossing tale of the Great Chicago Fire and the people who so desperately had to rebuild their lives after they lost everything. With amazing historical details and awesome characterization, INTO THE WHIRLWIND takes readers back in time and lets us feel the despair and fear and ultimately, the perseverance, of a devastating time in history.

Mollie is a fabulous heroine. She’s smart and driven with a strong loyalty to her employees. But times are changing and her business is in jeopardy. Enter Zack Kazmarek, the tough, powerful lawyer of Hartman’s Department store, the biggest buyer of her watches. When Zack makes her an offer for Hartman’s to buy her watch company, it’s an offer she can’t afford to refuse. She asks for time to consider, but before she can reach a decision, the fire breaks out and quickly burns much of the city to the ground. Zack becomes her refuge and chemistry blossoms between them, but in the aftermath of the fire, Mollie isn’t sure who she can trust, and the tension becomes to much to sustain their new found relationship.

What follows is an emotional, charming, heartfelt story about two very different people who come to realize that God made them for each other. With beautiful lessons of hope and perseverance and trusting in God’s plans, INTO THE WHIRLWIND is a spectacular read!

Review: Wildflowers from Winter by Katie Ganshert

wildflowersWILDFLOWERS FROM WINTER
Katie Ganshert
Waterbrook Press
Publication Date: May 8, 2012

From the back cover:

Like the winter, grief has a season. Life returns with the spring.
 
A young architect at a prestigious Chicago firm, Bethany Quinn has built the life she dreamed of during her teen years in a trailer park.  An unexpected interruption from her estranged mother reveals that tragedy has struck in her hometown and a reluctant Bethany is called back to rural Iowa.
 
Determined to pay her respects to her past while avoiding any emotional entanglements, she vows not to stay long. But the unexpected inheritance of five hundred acres of farmland and a startling turn of events in Chicago forces Bethany to come up with a new plan.
 
Handsome farmhand Evan Price has taken care of the Quinn farm for years.  When Bethany is left the land, Evan must fight her decisions to realize his dreams. But even as he disagrees with Bethany’s vision, Evan feels drawn to her and the pain she keeps so carefully locked away.
 
For Bethany, making peace with her past and the God of her childhood doesn’t seem like the path to freedom. Is letting go the only way to new life, love and a peace that she’s not even sure exists?

If you are looking for a truly beautiful, inspiring book, look no further than Katie Ganshert’s WILDFLOWERS FROM WINTER. This book is packed with raw, gritty emotion that keeps you turning the pages even though it is at times difficult to distance yourself from Bethany’s pain.

Katie Ganshert manages to bring Bethany Quinn alive. She is like all of us. Troubled, heartbroken, just trying to do the best we can with what life dealt us. And then, her grandfather’s heart-attack brings her back to the one place she never wanted to see again, and she begins questioning everything she believed to be true about God.

I loved Ms. Ganshert’s use of both first and third person! This is not a technique often used in books and I thought Ms. Ganshert did an excellent job, using first person to narrate Bethany’s past and third to narrate her present. Ms. Ganshert doesn’t skimp on details. She paints a picture with her words that connects readers to Bethany and makes us not only care about her, but learn something from her.

WILDFLOWERS FROM WINTER is an engrossing tale of grief, heartbreak, and the healing power of God’s love. Read it. You won’t be disappointed! Highly Recommended!