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.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

How I Made it to Eighteen - Tracy White

Title: How I Made it to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story
Author: Tracy White
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 151 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: September 2, 2015
Finished: September 2, 2015

From the inside cover:

This is the story of what happened to me when I had a nervous breakdown at seventeen. All the names and some details have been changed, but the following facts are true (mostly):

1. I hated my life (you know, self-loathing, $h*tty boyfriend, bitch mom, etc.)

2. I had a breakdown (lost it, went crazy).

3. I admitted myself (checked into Golden Meadows Mental Hospital).

4. I detested it even though I wanted to be happy (miserable, but still missed my crap life).

5. I realized I was in trouble (realized it like feel-it-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach realized it).

6. I finally really talked (as in, stopped lying).

7. I wrote and drew this book (the one you are holding in your hands).

Based purely on the simple artwork on the cover, you wouldn't expect to be reading a fairly dark account of the author's stay in a mental hospital as a teenager, so this book isn't for every reader, but is definitely an interesting read.

The author, Stacy (real name Tracy, but all names have been changed) checks herself into Golden Meadows after she punches her hand through a window. Throughout her stay we see her interactions with the other patients and her doctors/counsellors, her denial and unwillingness to work with them at first but then reaches a breaking point and does make a change for the better. There's lots of heavy stuff here: drugs, depression, eating disorders, molestation, and bad relationships in general, so this isn't something every kid is going to want to read, but will surely hit home for some who may have been in similar situations. I like how the author had a focus on Stacy's friends at the end of every chapter where a question is posed to them about their relationship with Stacy, it's intriguing to see how the answers differ depending on what stage of life the friend was from and how some elements stayed the same regardless.

A dark, heavy look into a teen's mental health recovery, so not for everyone but nonetheless important.

Thoughts on the cover:
The simplistic art shown on the cover is indicative of what you see throughout the graphic novel, which though it's refreshing, I prefer more intricate art.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Awkward - Svetlana Chmakova

Title: Awkward
Author: Svetlana Chmakova
Publisher: Yen Press, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: September 1, 2015
Finished: September 1, 2015

From the back cover:

Cardinal Rule #1 for Surviving School: Don't get noticed by the mean kids.

Cardinal Rule #2 for Surviving School: Seek out groups with similar interests and join them.

On her first day at her new school, Penelope - Peppi - Torres reminds herself of these basics. But when she trips into a quiet boy in the hall, Jaime Thompson, she's already broken the first rule, and the mean kids start calling her the "herder girlfriend." How does she handle this crisis? By shoving poor Jaime and running away!

Falling back on rule two and surrounding herself with new friends in the art club, Peppi still can't help feeling ashamed about the way she treated Jaime. Things are already awkward enough between the two, but to make matters worse, he's a member of her own club's archrivals - the science club! And when the two clubs go to war, Peppi realizes that sometimes you have to break the rules to survive middle school!

I haven't thoroughly enjoyed a graphic novel like this in a long time, I'm completely enamoured with this book. I've read other works by this artist and I love them all, so I'm not surprised I love this one too.

Penelope has moved to a new town and is starting at a new middle school. Right on her first day she trips and spills her books across the floor, which is embarrassing enough, but when quiet Jaime helps her out, the other kids immediately start teasing both of them. Penelope reacts by shoving Jaime and telling him to leave her alone, and she regrets it for weeks afterward, wanting desperately to apologize but feeling too awkward about the whole encounter to actually approach him. In the meantime, the art club that Peppi has joined is clashing with the science club across the hall that Jaime is a part of. The art club has failed to contribute to the school community and has lost their table at the club fair, and a prank gone wrong by the science club has also lost them their table. When a competition between the two clubs to obtain a table goes horribly awry, Peppi and Jaime brainstorm to come up with a way to end the animosity between the groups.

First off, this graphic novel is adorable. The art work is a cute, anime-style with a soft colour palette, so it's very eye-pleasing. The characters are realistic for middle-schoolers, the creator captured the awkward adolescent mood perfectly in my opinion. Also, I love the diversity displayed here: equal numbers of male and female characters, Peppi is biracial, and there are characters of many different races and ethnicities, including a girl in a hijab, which I don't think I've ever seen in a children's graphic novel. We also have different abilities represented too, since Jaime's mom is in a wheelchair. In addition, both Peppi and Jaime are really good role models. They mess up like all kids do, but rectify the situation eventually while preserving relationships amongst them and being an example for the other kids. There's this scene at the end where the bullies that made fun of Peppi and Jaime at the beginning are doing it again but this time both sets of kids from the art and science club stand up for the two of them, and it was just beautiful.

All classrooms need this book for their students since kids will be all over this like they flock to the Amulet, Bone, and Raina Telgemeier graphic novels.

Thoughts on the cover:
So. Stinking. Cute. I love how the author/artist captured the essence of the story between Peppi and Jaime in the foreground and the art and science clubs in the background.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Lumberjanes - Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, Allen

Title: Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy
Authors: Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke Allen
Publisher: Boom! Box, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 127 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: August 30, 2015
Finished: August 31, 2015

From the back cover:

At Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types, things are not always what they seem. Three-eyed foxes. Secret caves. Anagrams. Luckily, Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are five rad, butt-kicking best pals determined to have an awesome summer together...and they're not gonna let a magical quest or an array of supernatural critters get in their way! The mystery keeps getting bigger, and it all begins here.

Written by awesome all-star Noelle Stevenson (Nimona, Adventure Time) and brilliant newcomer Grace Ellis, and illustrated by the tremendously talented Brooke Allen (A Home for Mr. Easter).

Along with Nimona, this was another comic that came highly recommended, so of course I picked it up.

Lumberjanes takes the stereotypical image of Girl Scouts/Guides and throws it on its head, just look at the camp's name above. The craziness begins with the group of five girls getting attacked by weird three-eyed mutant foxes while being out in the woods at night following a bearwoman (cause why wouldn't they follow a bearwoman they saw outside their cabin?) and it just gets better. I really like how it's a female-centric comic (we don't see nearly enough of those as we should) where the five main leads are quite different in terms of personality: Ripley is off-the-wall silly, April appears stereotypically girly but is actually incredibly strong, Mal appears more masculine but is really sensitive, Jo is your intelligent leader-type, and Molly is a bit of everything. The group is not only diverse personality-wise, but also racially/ethnically and in their body types. The humour is great, as is the art style. It's just a really entertaining story that has some great female leads that we don't often see in North American comics.

Incredibly funny and girl-centric graphic novel, go read it!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Stevenson's cover was chosen for this compilation even though Allen does the artwork in the book itself (they also showcase all the covers and character designs by all the creators in the back of the book).

Friday, August 28, 2015

Nimona - Noelle Stevenson

Title: Nimona
Author: Noelle Stevenson
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 266 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Started: August 25, 2015
Finished: August 27, 2015

From the inside cover:

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: to prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are. Explosions will be involved. Science and Sharks will be too. But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.

Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson based on her award-winning web comic.

I heard nothing but good things about this graphic novel so I decided to pick it up. After reading it, this is a graphic novel I will be adding to my classroom collection for its humour, art style, feminist undertones, LGBTQ hints, and general awesomeness.

Nimona inhabits a medieval-inspired fantasy universe where there are dragons and knights, but surprisingly high-tech. She wants to become sidekick to Ballister Blackheart, the realm's resident villain who holds a grudge against Sir Goldenloin as the cause of the loss of his right arm (replaced by a mechanical one). Blackheart still holds to certain morals however (he used to be a knight in training with Goldenloin), and tries his best to keep Nimona's intensity in check. When the Institution realizes that Nimona is a shapeshifter, they order her death. Goldenloin has a bit of a conscience though, and only agrees to kill Nimona if the Institution will spare Blackheart. Throughout the comic, Goldenloin and Blackheart spar physically and emotionally (hence the LGBTQ hints) and try to uncover Nimona's backstory to figure out exactly what she is.

I love the fact that Nimona can take any form she wants (including dinosaurs and dragons) and chooses to take the human form of a chubby redhead, yay for body diversity! And I love that Nimona still has a very specific identity and personality regardless of the form her body takes, Nimona is still Nimona no matter what she looks like (how's that for body acceptance?) The story starts off goofy and sarcastic and cool and slowly morphs into a story with much deeper, darker themes. I also like the little bonus comics and sketches at the back of the book, including one of Blackheart and Goldenloin as kids at Christmas and early character development sketches.

An amazing story with great art and humour, and an awesome female protagonist. Plus, sharks and dragons, you need to read this.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it, especially with the green tones. I like how Nimona is in quasi-dragon form here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Book of Spirits and Thieves - Morgan Rhodes

Title: A Book of Spirits and Thieves
Author: Morgan Rhodes
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 359 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 14, 2015
Finished: August 25, 2015

From the inside cover:

Worlds collide in this suspenseful, page-turning Falling Kingdoms spin-off series, which explores a whole new side of Mytica - and an even darker version of its magic.

Crystal Hatcher and her little sister, Becca, are working in the Speckled Muse, their mother's downtown Toronto bookshop, when an unexpected parcel arrives. Inside is an object that will change their lives forever: a large leather-bound book written in an unrecognizable language. When Becca opens it, she falls into a deep coma that sends her spirit to another world.

Meanwhile, on the ritzier side of town, Farrell Grayson parties away his parents' fortune. When the mysterious leader of a powerful secret society invites him to join his inner circle, Farrell seizes the chance to prove his worth - no matter how much he has to sacrifice.

Worlds away in Mytica, merciless goddess Valoria hunts for the elusive treasure that will make her ruler not only of her realm, but of all the unseen worlds that lie beyond it. But Valoria's plans are thwarted when Maddox Corso, a commoner, meets a pretty stranger from a faraway land who desperately needs his help. Her name is Becca Hatcher, and when Maddox realizes he's the only one who can see her, their meeting feels like much more than chance.

I haven't read the author's Falling Kingdoms series, the one that this book (the first in a new series) is based on, so keep in mind I have no background of the Falling Kingdoms universe.

The book contains three different narratives across two universes: Crystal and Farrell in modern-day Toronto, and Maddox in the high fantasy realm of Mytica. Crystal and Becca work in the Speckled Muse bookshop that has been in their family for generations, and when their Aunt Jackie sends the store a package with a mysterious book in it, it soon sends Becca into a coma while having no affect on Crystal. Farrell and his wealthy family are involved in a secret society lead by Markus King, a strange man with god-like powers that punishes evil not unlike a vigilante. In Mytica, Maddox, a boy with the magic powers of a necromancer, is thrust into a plot to overthrow the goddess Valoria, while also trying to help the spirit of Becca Hatcher return to her world. All these seemingly unrelated plots eventually intertwine quite well, and the voice of each of the three different narrations is quite distinct , so there's no confusion.

I really enjoyed the dual perspective of modern-day world alongside a high fantasy world (and can I say yay for the author being Canadian and setting the book in Toronto), it really made certain details interesting especially given the Canadian setting. Crystal is quite spunky and fiery, plus she's smart enough to figure things out and not allow herself to be taken advantage of. Farrell is a classic bad boy with an angst-ridden background that is really good deep down but makes some very bad decisions (and to be fair it's not entirely his fault). Maddox is sweet and doubts himself but really comes into his own by the end of the book. I felt like Crystal and Farrell were more developed than Maddox and Becca mainly because Crystal and Farrell's narratives tend to overlap since they deal directly with each other in Toronto, while Maddox and Becca we only see for one-third of the book.

There was some lag in the middle of the story between setting up the story and just waiting for something to happen, but the latter third of the book is where things pick up nicely, leaving things open-ended enough for the next book. The book is heavy on the dialogue, and it leaves a bit to be desired in that department, but the story is still engaging and worth the read.

Secret societies, bookstores, magic, and Toronto, need I say more?

Thoughts on the cover:
Not quite sure which character is supposed to be on the cover, but it's a nice image nonetheless.