Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Punky Brewster - Joelle Sellner and Lesley Vamos

Title: Punky Brewster
Author: Joelle Sellner and Lesley Vamos
Publisher: IDW Publishing, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 112 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel
Started: November 24, 2015
Finished: November 24, 2015

From the back cover:

Punky Brewster has never had it easy. Scraping by on the streets of Chicago with the help of her puppy sidekick, Brandon, life could be pretty tough. But Punky's never without her sunny disposition - even after the police find her and put her into foster care. The hunt is on for a new family when she meets Henry Warnimont, a long-lost relative, and decides he's the adoptive dad for her. All she has to do is convince the foster home, the family court system, and possibly Henry himself. Luckily, she's got an unbeatable resource - her limitless reserve of...Punky Power!

I'll admit, I picked this up purely for nostalgia purposes. As an 80s child, I was very well versed in the Punky universe growing up and still watch episodes of the show on YouTube when I need a pick-me-up.

This graphic novel collects the first 8 single issues of the comic and is a stand-alone story about meeting Punky, her stint in foster care, her relationship with Henry, and navigating the family court system. I loved that the story has been updated for modern readers: Punky helps a woman steal digital cameras and tablets in exchange for food, Margaux takes selfies with her smartphone, and Punky uses a Macbook in Henry's studio. The story still retains all the elements and general feel of the original show, Punky is still that cheeky, smart kid who's resilience is astounding; and Henry is still that kind but slightly grouchy older man that ends up being the perfect family for Punky. I also like how the comic goes into more information about the foster care and adoption systems than I remember the show doing.

Very charming and so sweet it'll give you cavities. A great kid-friendly graphic novel that's sure to please. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Doesn't showcase the art very well but does capture the Punky spirit pretty well. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rules for Stealing Stars - Corey Ann Haydu

Title: Rules for Stealing Stars
Author: Corey Ann Haydu
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction/Fantasy
Started: October 25, 2015
Finished: November 6, 2015

From the inside cover:

Silly is used to feeling left out. Her three older sisters think she's too little for most things - especially when it comes to dealing with their mother's unpredictable moods and outbursts. But for Silly, that's normal. She hardly remembers a time when Mom wasn't drinking.

This summer, Silly is more alone than ever, and it feels like everyone around her is keeping secrets. Mom is sick all the time; Dad acts like everything's fine when  clearly it isn't; and Silly's sisters keep whispering and sneaking away to their rooms together, returning with signs that something mysterious is afoot and giggling about jokes that Silly doesn't understand.

When Silly is brought into her sisters' world, the truth is more exciting than she ever imagined. The sisters have discovered a magical place that gives them what they truly need: an escape from the complications of their home life. But there are dark truths there, too. Silly hopes the magic will be the secret to saving their family, but she's soon forced to wonder if it might tear them apart.

This received a lot of hype, and I haven't read a good middle grade book in a while, so I decided to pick this up. Thankfully the hype is well deserved.

Priscilla is the youngest of four sisters: fourteen-year-old twins Eleanor and Astrid, twelve-year-old Marla, and eleven-year-old Silly. Their dad is a professor who studies fairy tales and folklore, and their mom is an alcoholic. After being "Away" several times for treatment but without much improvement, Silly and her sisters are forced to walk on eggshells around their mom while they spend the summer in a new home. When their mom turns her temper on the girls, the older sisters take to their rooms, leaving Silly to fend for herself. When they finally tell her what they've been up to, Silly discovers why they could spend hours in their bedrooms. The closets in their rooms are magical, some good, some bad. Marla's closet shows you what you want or need to see, Eleanor's closet makes dioramas come to life, and Astrid's closet is the one that Silly is warned not to go into, the one that will make you want to stay inside forever and fade from people's memories. When their mom deteriorates further and goes Away once again, the girls each have their own ways of coping. When one sister ventures into Astrid's closet, the rest need to find a way to make her want to come back and face reality with a renewed sense of hope.

This book was both beautiful and sad at the same time. Silly's attempts to describe and deal with her mother's behaviour are childishly simple but strangely truthful. Anyone who has experience with alcoholic or otherwise toxic family environments might actually find this triggering. The realistic portion of the story I feel was well-done, I enjoyed how all the sisters were very distinct in terms of personalities and how they reacted, even the twins were very much individuals rather than a unit. The four of them aren't great sisters in the beginning, but eventually learn from their mistakes to communicate better so that they can be there for each other in the absence of their parents. The magical aspect regarding the closets was an interesting way to give hope to the girls' situation, I think the author handled it well.

Beautiful yet sad, and altogether amazing.

Thoughts on the cover:
Pretty and very fitting for the story.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Walk on Earth a Stranger - Rae Carson

Title: Walk on Earth a Stranger
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 431 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: October 15, 2015
Finished: October 24, 2015

From the inside cover:

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend - who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees to California - where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

The acclaimed Rae Carson begins a sweeping new trilogy set in Gold Rush-era America, about a young woman with a powerful and dangerous gift.

I read the author's famous Girl of Fire and Thorns series (The Girl of Fire and ThornsThe Crown of EmbersThe Bitter Kingdom) and loved it to pieces, so of course when I heard the author was writing a new trilogy called The Gold Seer, I of course had to pick it up.

This first book, Walk on Earth a Stranger, introduces us to Leah Westfall, called Lee, who can sense gold around her. She lives in Georgia in 1849, where her parents migrated from New England to stake a claim and find gold. They manage to survive despite the infrequent gold discoveries thanks to Lee's gift. But when Lee's uncle Hiram hires men to kill her parents in order to use Lee's power for himself, she escapes in the night dressed as a boy to follow her friend Jefferson to California. Not only does she have to worry about being found by Hiram and his men along the way, Lee has to survive the arduous journey from Georgia to California.

I'll have to admit, I felt the story was slow in the beginning while waiting for Lee to leave. Once she meets up with the Joyners and Jefferson and the other families she travels with, things picked up greatly. I liked how Lee and the other women in the book are strong in their own right and touch on how women are viewed as possessions (it is 1849 after all) and fight against that. I also like how the author touched on slavery and Native American relations, and even managed to incorporate LGBT characters moving to California in order to begin anew. I didn't love this book like I loved Girl of Fire and Thorns because I'm not a big fan of novels where all the characters do is travel from place to place with nothing of substance happening. I might like the subsequent novels better since the group is in California and can finally get in on the action.

Definitely worth the read but so far not as satisfying as the author's previous series.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simply gorgeous.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Strong Female Protagonist - Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

Title: Strong Female Protagonist
Author: Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 220 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: October 16, 2015
Finished: October 19, 2015

From the inside cover:

With super strength and invulnerability, Alison Green used to be one of the most powerful superheroes around. Fighting crime with other teenagers under the alter-ego Mega Girl was fun until an encounter with Menace, her mind-reading arch enemy. He showed her evidence of a sinister conspiracy, and suddenly battling giant robots didn't seem so important.

Now Alison is going to college and trying to find ways to actually help the world while still getting to class on time. It's impossible to escape the past, however, and everyone has their own idea of what it means to be a hero...

I picked this up purely based on the title and that it featured a female superhero; this is one of the rare cases where I hadn't actually read the web comic before reading the collected version.

Alison Green lives in a world where individuals are biodynamic or chromosomally stable, you either have super powers or you don't. Alison came into her powers as a fourteen-year-old and went on to fight the forces of evil as one of the most formidable forces around, until she gave it up at nineteen when she realized it takes more than super powers to be a hero.

I like how this is a much darker and more philosophical type of super hero story (so not for the kiddies or super sensitive readers). Alison is disenchanted with her circumstances and realizes that being one of the most powerful people in the world hasn't changed things to the degree she'd have liked, and that others have actually made more of a difference than she (at least in her mind).

I like how Alison has a darker side, she actually muses on how she fantasizes about killing people because she knows she can but manages to quash it in favour of maintaining her optimism that she can bring about authentic change. I also like how a chapter on Alison's early life was included, and how awesome her parents are portrayed (yay for a hero actually having both parents for a change).

This is an incredibly refreshing take on the typical super hero story, definitely pick this up. Also, you can continue reading the story online at The graphic novel version covers chapters 1-4, but you can read the content online for free including what's covered in the graphic novel and beyond.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like Alison in the free fall pose, not sure why. Another nice touch is on the back side of the cover you see Alison in the same pose, just dressed as Mega Girl rather than her civilian self.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Astrologer's Daughter - Rebecca Lim

Title: The Astrologer's Daughter
Author: Rebecca Lim
Publisher: Text Publishing Company, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Mystery
Started: October 2, 2015
Finished: October 14, 2015

From the back cover:

Avicenna Crowe's mother, Joanne, is an astrologer with uncanny predictive powers and a history of being stalked.

Now she is missing.

The police are called, but they're not asking the right questions. Like why Joanne lied about her past, and what she saw in her stars that made her so afraid.

But Avicenna has inherited her mother's gift. Finding an unlikely ally in the brooding Simon Thorn, she begins to piece together the mystery.

And when she universe a link between Joanne's disappearance and a cold-case murder, Avicenna is led deep into the city's dark and seedy underbelly, unaware of how far she is placing her own life in danger.

Pulse-racing and terrifyingly real, The Astrologer's Daughter will test your belief in destiny and the endurance of love.

I wanted to pick this up purely because it was a bit out there and very different from what I usually read. I think I chose well.

Eighteen-year-old Avicenna (love that name by the way) lives with her mom in Melbourne, recently moved to yet another new place due to the unwanted attention her mother receives from her work as an eerily accurate astrologist. When her mother suddenly disappears, Avicenna is faced with the task of helping the police figure out where she might have gone and what could have happened. When the police discover that Avicenna has inherited her mother's abilities (though she mostly refuses to use them), they ask her to finish up her mother's work on some unfinished jobs. With that, Avicenna puts herself in danger when she actually helps solve a cold case murder without getting any closer to figuring out what happened to her mom.

I loved the surreal feel in this book. The writing, the setting, Avicenna's personality, the astrological influences, everything comes together really well to make for an engrossing read. The only beef I have with it is the lack of closure at the end.

If you're looking for something different with a mysterious and otherworldly (but not too out there) feel, give this a shot.

Thoughts on the cover:
Not amazingly impressive but I do like that the model is holding a magnifying glass.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Serafina and the Black Cloak - Robert Beatty

Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Author: Robert Beatty
Publisher: Disney Hyperion, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 293 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy/Historical Fiction
Started: September 21, 2015
Finished: September 29, 2015

From the inside cover:

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There's plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care never to be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate's maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore's corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore's owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak's true identity...before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina's hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

I have to say I haven't been this enamoured with a middle grade book in a while, this is one that is sure to please.

Serafina is twelve and lives in the boiler room with her father in the basement of the enormous Biltmore Estate in North Carolina in 1899. Her father is the maintenance man with the mind of an engineer, making sure the house is supplied with the electricity it needs to be as state-of-the-art as it is. He has told Serafina that she is not to be seen by the others in the house because he is afraid of them thinking ill of her, for Serafina is not like the other children. She has yellow eyes, four toes on each foot instead of five, is an accomplished hunter, and can see quite well in the dark, to the point that Serafina calls herself a "creature of the night" and grapples with the connotations that go along with it. But that doesn't stop Serafina from prowling around Biltmore at night, and it's during one of these nights that she witnesses a young girl visiting the estate being "consumed" by an eerie man in a black cloak. The next day as the adults search for the missing child and Serafina learns that this is not the first person to have gone missing from Biltmore, she vows to use her unique skills to track down who the man in the black cloak is and find out if the missing children are still alive.

First off, I have to give the author credit for a few things: setting the story somewhere different than what we normally see (North Carolina), and really doing his research on Biltmore Estate (yes it is a real place you can visit). There's a point in the book where Serafina is referred to as the mythological Diana, goddess of the hunt, and there's an actual statue of Diana on the grounds at Biltmore (I thought that was a nice touch). I only wish there had been a little author's note about the estate and maybe a photo, because it was hard to get a sense of the size of it just from reading, and upon researching it myself, I realized it's more like a large European estate or small castle than what I imagined when thinking of an estate in the southern United States at the turn of the century. See the actual Biltmore Estate below:

Moving on to characters, Serafina is a great character, and many things about her personality click into place upon the revelation about her past at the end of the book. She's spunky and fierce but also worries about herself as a person and whether she'll be accepted by others. Braeden was a charming addition, I just loved the little guy, especially how he clicks more with animals than people, which makes him odd in his upper-class setting. Braeden and Serafina make a good match as friends, and his dog Gidean makes a good character all on his own too. 

The writing is well done, and I like how the author made things genuinely spooky without making it inappropriate for a middle grade novel, which makes it perfect read for Halloween.

Excellent plot, writing, and characters; this is a must-read. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Nicely creepy with Serafina's silhouette on the top with an imagined Biltmore on the bottom (but doesn't look like the real Biltmore). 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Court of Fives - Kate Elliot

Title: The Court of Fives
Author: Kate Elliot
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 14, 2015
Finished: September 20, 2015

From the inside cover:

On the Fives Court, everyone is equal. And everyone is equally dangerous.

Jessamy's life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom's best contenders.

Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors - one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy - causes heads to turn. When Kal's powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes' family apart, she'll have to test her new friend's loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

In this imaginative escape from enthralling new lands, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliot's first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

This book had a lot of hype surrounding it, so I decided to pick it up. Unfortunately it didn't quite deliver, despite some promising areas.

Jessamy lives in two worlds yet belongs in neither. Her father is a Patron, an upper class man of Saroese background who is an army commander. Her mother is a Commoner, an Efean. Inter-class marriages are forbidden in Saryenia so her parents aren't married, but her father admiringly takes care of his "wife" and  four daughters (Jes, Maraya, Amaya, and Bettany), even though he would be well within his rights to have sent them to the Temple when they were born to be sequestered away for life. Since her father is actually a relatively decent man,  when he is invited to watch the Fives compete after a military victory, he wishes to take his "wife" and daughters along to show that he isn't ashamed of them. Jessamy, her mother, and her sisters all need to be well-behaved on the best of occasions since they are the product of an illicit affair frowned upon by polite society, and must not do anything to draw undue attention to their family. And Jes does just that.

The Fives is kind of like an all terrain obstacle course and race in one, where all the participants are masked. Jes is obsessed with the Fives and actually trains to compete in secret while her father is away. She had planned to compete for the first time in the very event her father is taking them all to. Knowing she cannot even win since winners must remove their masks, revealing her identity for all the Patrons to see, Jes still decides to run the Fives with the help of her sisters. When she competes with Prince Kalliarkos and lets him win, she attracts his interest. With Kal comes his uncle Gargaron, who when he uncovers Jes' identity, uses his influence to ruin her family when Jes' father's sponsor dies and the family is left vulnerable. Gargaron demands Jes run the Fives for him to try to profit from her skill while forcing her father to marry his niece and sending her pregnant mother and sisters to be sealed underground with the Oracle. Jes must rescue her mother and sisters with Kal's help and perform well in the Fives or else Gargaron will sell her to recoup his costs.

The setup for this novel was quite interesting: the class structure was intriguing and provided a unique set of conflicts. I couldn't quite get behind Jes' motivation however. Sure she has a relatively easy existence living with the comfort of a Patron without quite being accepted by them, and yeah I get that would be difficult, but to be willing to risk everyone's comfortable life just to run a race she can't even actually win? That's just dumb. Jes and Kal's relationship has no real build-up, there's the initial attraction when they compete and train, then he helps rescue her mom and sisters and then bam, insta-love. And I don't quite get Gargaron's motives behind breaking up Jes' family, he has the resources to just kill everyone with no accountability yet he has this layered scheme going on. I'm hoping all these issues will just be resolved upon reading the next book (this is the first in a trilogy/series, not sure yet).

Good premise but not executed as well as I had hoped.

Thoughts on the cover:
Interesting design but can't quite see the connection, could be random but it's pretty nonetheless.