Book Review: Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise by Wendelin Van Draanen

Title: Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise
Author: Wendelin Van Draanen
Genre: MG/YA Mystery
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Release Date: September 10, 2013

This review contains spoilers for those who have not read Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City.

Today, I bring you my thoughts on the second-to-last installment of a favorite series from my childhood, Sammy Keyes. Sammy, after finally learning who her father is, is now set to join him on a Let's-Get-to-Know-Each-Other cruise across the high seas with her best friend, Marissa McKenzie, in tow! However, as things in Sammy's life rarely do, nothing quite goes as planned, and after making the acquaintance of the family behind the Kensington fragrance empire, Sammy, Marissa, her dad, and his best friend, Marko, end up right in the middle of a classic whodunnit murder mystery.

I loved this book. By all accounts, Sammy's life has completely changed now that she's got her dad in her life—and not just any kind of dad, a rock star dad—and her grandmother has married and moved in with Hudson. Suddenly, all the things Sammy never really had—money, popularity, a bed—are available to her and she's not quite sure what to make of it, especially since she's convinced her dad will flake at any moment just like her mother. On top of all this, Sammy frets about losing Marissa, who is moving to Ohio with her mom and brother after the school year ends. One of the highlights of this book is the window Van Draanen gives us into Sammy's new life and her hesitant attempts to adjust to it. Watching Sammy and her dad, Darren, get to know each other is delightful, and her struggle to enjoy her last harrah with Marissa while trying to figure out how they'll stay close after Marissa moves is relatable. The underlying narrative about dealing with change, both those big, unexpected life changes and the ones that come along with growing up, is one that I think many, regardless of age, can relate to or understand. I certainly identified with it. Having just graduated college, I have lived Sammy's struggle to figure out how to make long-distance friendships work, since my friends are now scattered across the country.

In stark contrast to the cute family unit Sammy and Darren fashion for themselves, our resident antagonists/suspects, the Kensington clan, are a dysfunctional family if you've ever seen one. The kids are not at all concerned by their mother, Kate's, disappearance, which kicks off the mystery portion of the story. Sammy falls into an unlikely alliance with Kip Kensington, an adopted addition to the family, and quickly learns that all of Kate's kids, displeased with their late father's will, have a motive to want their mother gone. Sammy continues in her trademark vein of getting into trouble (and dragging Marissa in with her). In this book, though, she also gains the assistance of two willing troublemakers in Darren and Marko, who, despite being adults, get just as invested in figuring out this mystery as Sammy herself does. Trapped on a ship, Kate's disappearance is your typical locked room mystery that follows in the vein of classics like Clue or Sherlock, a fact Van Draanen alludes to directly when Marko re-imagines the game Clue to include the Kensington clan as the suspects.

Van Draanen does a great job balancing the more subtle nature of the character development aspect with the action and suspense of the mystery, a balance made possible due to the uniqueness of Sammy's voice. Sammy approaches a lot of her personal issues such as her reluctance to call Darren "dad" and Marissa leaving, as well as the mystery itself with a tell-it-like-it-is candor, which means we can read about the "mushy" things without getting bogged down in dramatics. We feel her emotions and see her struggles, but she acknowledges them and just as quickly we're off to the races about something else. Her voice ensures the reader can never get bored, always bouncing us from conjecture to personal reflection to action and back again in a way that will even engage readers outside of the book's intended 9-15 aged audience. (I read the first page of this story out loud to my dad, and it had both of us chuckling.) Plus, Sammy's disdain toward being spoken down to by adults means that Van Draanen never talks down to her readers, and she doesn't shy away from tackling "tough issues," a fact I especially appreciated because so many books written for young people do, as if kids and teenagers can't or don't think "the tough stuff" as much or as deeply as their adult counterparts.

My final verdict? Sammy's done it again! Her spunk, her sass, and her penchant for trouble all come through on the page loud and clear, and they make for a fun, enjoyable, snappy read. I'd definitely recommend this book for anyone who likes the structure or suspense of mystery with a dash of family drama, laugh out loud humor, and classic Sammy Keyes trouble!

5 stars

Book Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Title: The Dream Thieves
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: September 17, 2013
Thanks to Christina for letting me read over her shoulder!

 Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater have been woken, nothing for Ronan, Gansey, Blue, and Adam will be the same. Ronan, for one, is falling more and more deeply into his dreams, and his dreams are intruding more and more into waking life. Meanwhile, some very sinister people are looking for some of the same pieces of the Cabeswater puzzle that Gansey is after...

The worst thing about getting a book you've been waiting for, anxiously, for almost a year, is finishing it and realizing that you will have to wait yet another year for it to continue. I watched a danisnotonfire video about fiction addictions today, and everything he says is pretty much true. Sometimes, you get so invested in something that you want to live there instead of in reality, and the fictional problems of these characters are so much more important than your own (such as getting a job, looming deadlines, being hopelessly behind on all your other commitments), and just as you're really settling in, imagining exactly where and how you'd fit in with this merry cast of awesomeness, the story ends, and you are violently and suddenly ripped right out of the fantastic into boring, old, seemingly endless reality. And the only question you can form in your head is: why?

The Dream Thieves was just such a book for me. Maggie Stiefvater just has this gift to create vacuums when she writes that just suck you right into the middle of the action, into the middle of the world she's created, and she keeps you there until either the book ends, or you manage to tear yourself away from it long enough to close it. There were perhaps a couple minor things I wish I could change, but this book is glorious. Everyone should read it, if for no other reason than to appreciate her gorgeous writing.

1. Characters: 6/5 (and no, the 6 is not a typo. It's just me being cheesy.)
I'm not one to talk about characters needing to be "relatable," because the world is a big, diverse place. There are plenty of people on it to whom I could never hope to relate; however, Blue, in this book, was very relatable to me, mostly because of the way she feels about the boys—wanting so desperately to fit in with them, but knowing that she never could because of one fundamental difference, in this case, because she is a girl. I also can identify with her struggle to want to be with someone so badly, but knowing that, in the end, you can't be. To do so would mean death.

At times it was painful watching how the boys changed in this book and how their relationship grew as they did, but chalk it up to a certain bittersweetness, because despite all that change, you can tell the boys still care for each other. Both as individuals and as a collective entity, these boys most definitely fall among my favorite characters of all time. The (at times, dysfunctional) relationship between the boys is probably my favorite part of this series.

As a quick nod to the other characters in the book, they too grew more complex, seeming just as real to me as the Raven Boys or Blue did.
2. The Relationship(s): 3.5/5
The inevitable developing relationship between Blue and Gansey gets a shining moment here, just as everything seems to be spinning wildly out of control. Stiefvater does a great job of maintaining that tension between you wanting the two of them to be together and also not because of the horrible, unavoidable fate that relationship will have. She also does a great job of not letting you forget that that caveat exists. I really appreciated how responsibly Gansey and Blue both react to this development. It seemed like a type of discernment not often seen in YA relationships, though I must admit, in the last couple books I've read, the characters involved in the relationship have exhibited a similar type of sense, so maybe it's making a comeback. Or maybe it never left. You can debate me on this one.

The other relationship that pops up rather surprisingly, however, was less convincing. I'm suspicious of why it needed to happen, and it, of all the gentle nudging Stiefvater does to get us where she wants us, seemed kind of heavy-handed. It kind of comes off as a clear authorial decision made just to position people in a certain way for the next book. It was also fairly sudden, which does little to ease my suspicions. I suppose we'll have to wait and see how that turns out.
3. The Antagonist(s): 3/5
The first antagonist we meet was definitely more threatening and scary than the antagonist of The Raven Boys, but I thought he sort of ran out of steam as adding to any of the tension by about halfway through the book. The second antagonist (maybe we can call him that) seemed so flat as a character it was almost comical, so it was hard for me to take him seriously, though Stiefvater definitely does give him an interesting and unexpected twist that fleshed him out in a surprising way. Still, he never quite makes it to full-on antagonist to me.

4. Writing: 5/5
As per usual, Maggie Stiefvater's writing is just...there really are no words to describe it. She has this unique talent that no matter how hard I may try, prevents me from speed-reading her writing. There's something about it so wonderful that I feel the need to experience each word completely. I wish I had her skill to turn a phrase or to describe something so mundane in a way that almost makes it seem magical or that gets right at the heart of it by making you consider it in a totally different light. Yes. Just yes. There were a couple times I remember being confused by what was going on, though. I can't say if that's an issue with her writing or me just misinterpreting, but I'm sure I'll reread this book enough to get it all down in the long run.

5. Pacing: 4/5
The pacing seemed a bit slow, or rather, this book meanders along much like I imagine the mountain roads of Henrietta to. It sweeps along, visits every character, every nook and cranny to build the suspense and tension while simultaneously keeping us confused and slightly disoriented as we continue our slow ascent. But it's all interesting, and it all adds to the plot somehow, so I can't say that the pacing was off. Perhaps the best way to describe this book is patient.

Overall: 4.6/5

My final verdict? Get your hands on this book right now. Unusually, I think it sort of ends up without a clear antagonist, but most of what drives the book is not the fear of the antagonist finding what he's looking for, which would bring him in direct contact with the protagonists, but I think a certain fear of what's happening to the protagonists and the shared desire to know what they are or who they're becoming. The book hits stores on Tuesday.

Book Review: Sailor Moon Short Stories 1

Title: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Short Stories 1
Author: Naoko Takeuchi
Genre: Magical girl shoujo
Publisher: Kodansha Comics USA
Release Date: September 10, 2013

In this first of two collections of short stories, we find our favorite Sailor Guardians and their friends encountering new mysteries, enemies, allies, and once more saving the day. After the daughter of a foreign diplomat transfers to her school, Chibi-Usa's male classmates suspiciously stop attending classes. Upon investigation, Chibi-Usa discovers the new transfer student is a vampire! Mamoru’s birthday gift to Chibi-Usa turns out to be the brainwashing device of a depressed folk tale heroine come-to-life, seeking sympathy from fellow women and girls! Chibi-Usa’s Pink Sugar Heart Attack becomes literal when defeating a local sprite that has possessed the dentist she and Usagi visit to get their cavities treated. Then, other local sprites wreak havoc in the lives of Mako, Ami, and Rei as they and Mina and Usagi study for high school entrance exams. Finally, Chibi-Usa and her newfound BFF’s help out the quirky proprietor of a mysterious pawnshop that is under attack by both human and otherworldly entities!

I'm back after an unintentional two week sabbatical! This post brought to you by the surprise package waiting on my porch when I got home yesterday. Inside were two books I had totally forgotten were due out, one of which was the first volume of translated short stories from the Sailor Moon series. The volume, contrary to what I thought when I first saw the Japanese volumes in the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya earlier this year, is not a special edition extension of the story, but rather a collection of  the bonus chapter stories that appeared at the end of the original 18 tankoban (manga volumes). When the series was rereleased in Japan in 2003 to promote the Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon live action drama, the number of tankoban was slashed to 12, a reduction made possible by putting more chapters per book and removing the bonus chapters to make space for the extras. Of course, they couldn't just cut those out entirely, since they were part of the series' canon, so they were compiled into two tankoban and sold separately. What this meant for me was that some of the short stories in the volume, I'd read before (multiple times), some I had seen as animated shorts, and others I didn't even know existed.

The stories were all delightfully silly and fun! Despite being short, individual stories, they were split into two groupings that shared a common theme—the first being Chibi-Usa's Picture Diary and the second the Exam Battles faced by the older girls as they prepare for their high school entrance exams. The stories, as usual, focus more on the backstory leading up the final conflict rather than the conflict itself, a hallmark of shoujo stories. But that works out quite well, as the stories' main purpose mostly seemed to be character development. We are treated to personal character introductions featuring information on favorite colors, favorite foods, blood type (a distinction comparable to zodiac signs in Japan often used as a matchmaking, personality, or behavioral prediction tool), hobbies, etc. Being a huge fan of character development, I appreciated these extra stories right from the get-go, even more so because one of my biggest complaints about the Sailor Moon series is that the other Sailor Scouts are often forgotten when it comes to fleshing out their characters.

The pacing was about what you would expect in these stories, and as mentioned previously, each story is self-contained, despite being a part of a larger thematic narrative. We also get to meet two new characters—Chibi-Usa's BFFs—who had a surprising relationship to one of the trademark side characters of the series that I never knew about! Throughout these stories, we get to experience Takeuchi's gift with puns and what I imagine must have been the result of extensive research.

My biggest issue with this volume likely lay in the translation, which must have been extremely hard to work out this time around. I'd have to read through the Japanese volume to be sure, but Japanese often uses sentence endings to reinforce something such as the speaker's foreign origin or inhuman nature (for instances, talking cats or cat-humans might end a sentence with nyao, the Japanese counterpart to the English onomatopoeia, meow), a feature we distinctly lack in English. I can only guess that this is what accounts for the translator's inexplicable use of the letter "z" and improper grammar to denote what I think must be a(n evil) spirit of Chinese origin or the hard to understand valley girl speak of Chibi-Usa's kogal friends in the bonus chapter and, at times, even harder to understand explanations of their slang as given by Chibi-Usa. (I would also like to note that Chibi-Usa's BFFs don't look like third graders at all. Irrelevant, but it needed to be said.)

My final verdict? I would definitely recommend this book to Sailor Moon fans, particularly if you want to see the girls in a more relaxed setting and learn more about who the other four Inner Scouts are as individuals. It's a fast and fun read, perfect for a break taken from studying for classes or preparing for yet another meeting. Four stars, one star docked for the at times hard to follow translation.

Who's your favorite Sailor Scout? Any you wish you'd gotten the chance to get to know better or that you wish had gotten more screen time in the series? Hit me up! I love talking about Sailor Moon, and I'd love to hear your opinions on the ground breaking series.