Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jackaby - William Ritter

Title: Jackaby
Author: William Ritter
Publisher: Algonquin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 299 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Mystery, Fantasy
Started: December 15, 2014
Finished: December 18, 2014

From the inside cover:

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary - including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby''s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: a serial killer is on the loose. The police - with the exception of the handsome detective Charlie Cane - are convinced their culprit is an ordinary villain. Jackaby is certain the foul deeds are the work of an inhuman creature, the likes of which the authorities are adamant to deny. Doctor Who meets Sherlock in a debut novel, the first in a series, brimming with cheeky humour and a dose of the macabre.

When I first read the hype for this in my book newsletter, I knew this was a book I was going to love. Thankfully I was right, this was an excellent book which has left me clamoring for the next installment.

Abigail is a rather independent woman for the Victorian era. She wants to go on archaeological digs like her father and absconds with her college tuition money to pursue that. When that doesn't quite work out, she travels to America in the hope of making it on her own to avoid crawling back to her rigid parents. On her first day off the boat, she meets Jackaby, a strange, but otherwise pleasing mix of Sheldon Cooper, Sherlock Holmes, and The Doctor from Doctor Who. Jackaby works alongside the police department (begrudgingly so) solving crimes that involve supernatural elements. He is in search of an assistant that can handle his unique line of work (meaning that they can avoid being turned into an animal or other such fate), and finds one in Abigail. Together they work to solve the recent mystery of a string of strange killings.

I loved this book for so many reasons. The supernatural elements are quite well done and not your typical ones either: banshees, a redcap, Caini (werewolf-like shapeshifters), a prior assistant turned into a duck, a resident ghost in Jackaby's office, and a frog that releases noxious gas if you stare at it.

The humour is wonderful here and I guarantee it will have you laughing. Jackaby himself has a kind of witty, cheeky humour that thankfully rubs off on Abigail throughout the book, so the conversations between them are quite amusing. I can picture this being made into a movie, the dialogue lends itself well to that. Plus, I love the scenes with the frog ("Oh my god, you stared at the frog, didn't you?!")

The characters are appealing but I'm waiting on more development of them. Jackaby is intelligent but tortured, Abigail is very independent and rejects common gender roles, Charlie is fairly ordinary but likeable, and Jenny is pretty awesome. There isn't much development of said characters, so I'm hoping that will come in later books, but otherwise I like what I see here. The mystery was pretty easy to figure out, but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless.

This is a must-read, if for nothing else than the humour and Jackaby himself (can you tell I love him?). I'll be not-so-patiently waiting for the next book.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love. It. The colour scheme is very appealing, the silhouette of Jackaby actually looks like he's described, the addition of Abigail in her red dress, and the title in script font all comes together for a great piece of eye candy.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pandemic - Yvonne Ventresca

Title: Pandemic
Author: Yvonne Ventresca
Publisher: Sky Pony Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 330 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: December 9, 2014
Finished: December 12, 2014

From the inside cover:

Even under the most normal circumstances, high school can be rather tough and painful. Unfortunately, Lilianna's circumstances are anything but normal. Only a few people know what caused her sudden change from model student to the withdrawn pessimist she has become, but her situation isn't about to get any better. When people begin coming down with a quick-spreading illness that doctors are unable to treat, Lil's worst fears are realized. With her parents called away on business before the contagious outbreak, Lil's town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread illness and fatal disaster. Now, she's more alone than she's been ever since the "incident" at her school months ago.

With friends and neighbours dying all around her, Lil does everything she can just to survive. But as the disease rages on, so does unexpected tension as Lil is torn between an old ex and a new romantic interest. Just when it all seems too much, the cause of her original trauma shows up at her door.

In this thrilling debut from author Yvonne Ventresca, Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences but also her own personal demons.

I read the synopsis and it appealed to the paranoid, anxious person in me, and I was not disappointed.

Sixteen-year-old Lilianna has extreme anxiety and PTSD after being molested by one of her teachers. Months afterwards she is still hoarding non-perishable food items until her room looks like a food bank, consumed with being prepared for the worst. It doesn't help that her father works with the book's equivalent of the Centre of Disease Control and has anti-vitals stockpiled in a safe in their basement. When her mom and dad go away for weekend business trips just as a deadly new flu outbreak hits the east coast, Lil's town is hit and almost instantly everything shuts down. Lil has to find a way to survive the flu as well as looters, and take care of herself and band of friends that are now orphans.

I liked how the author described Lil's anxiety and paranoia, I've had moments like that right down to the stocking of emergency supplies. The timeline of the illness in the novel seemed pretty well researched, and I appreciated the index in the back of the book for websites for emergency preparedness (as well as sexual assault helplines). The one thing that I wasn't nuts about was how characters were introduced and died of the flu shortly after, so I wasn't really affected by their deaths like I feel I should be. And I think Lil and company got off easy since the book takes place in April, I figured a book on a killer strain of bird flu should take place in the dead of winter with a snowstorm (I like my characters to be challenged).

A heart-pounding book about one of my worst nightmares, and the reason why I am yet again researching 3-day emergency kits and not a bit angry about it.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the blue colour scheme and the image in the corner of the multitude of birds forming one giant bird.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sisters - Raina Telgemeier

Title: Sisters
Author: Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 200 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel
Started: December 8, 2014
Finished: December 8, 2014

From the back of the book:

Raina can't wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren't quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she's also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn't improve much over the years. But when a baby brother enters the picture and later, when something doesn't seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all.

Raina Telgemeier uses her signature humour and charm to tell the story of her relationship with her little sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.

I read the companion book, Smile, years ago when it first came out. It was pretty revolutionary at the time, a North American comic for kids by a female artist with a female protagonist in completely realistic situations. Most comics up until recently were mostly male-dominated with superheroes in fantasy situations, which I'm not knocking, I love my Batman stuff as much as the next fangirl, but it's not for everyone. Most girls like me in years past turned to Japanese manga for more sincere female protagonists, but I've noticed more domestic comics are coming out that appeal greatly to female readers, of which this particular artist has greatly contributed to.

Whereas Smile looked at author Raina's experience with braces and other dental horrors, Sisters examines her rocky relationship with her younger sister, Amara. Sisters takes place when Raina is fourteen and Amara is nine, while they are stuck in a car for a week each way with their mother and younger brother Will on the way from California to Colorado. Through a series of flashbacks readers see Raina at age four or five begging for a little sister to play with, and her disappointment when Amara is born and her expectations aren't met. Through more flashbacks we see the birth of their younger brother, the crowded conditions they live in, and how Raina escapes through music and art.

I liked how it showcased how different siblings can be, and how not every set of sisters are automatically best buddies for life. Raina is self-conscious whereas Amara is confident, Amara is prickly whereas Raina is more accommodating, and though both girls are quite talented in art, Amara tends to steal Raina's thunder. I also liked the scenes at the family reunion where Raina doesn't fit in with the adults quite yet, is not accepted into the circle of her older cousins, is too old for the younger cousins her brother's age, so she and Amara don't fit in anywhere. As an only child with mostly younger cousins on one side and no cousins on the other side, I can completely sympathize with that feeling, especially when I was a teenager.

A really humorous look at the tumultuous relationship that can exist between siblings. The art style is appealing, and the content is great for younger readers but can appeal to teenagers as well. Plus, the whole scene with the snake in the car was hilarious.

Thoughts on the cover:
I liked the continuation from the Smile cover, with Raina's smiley face with braces contrasted against Amara's prickly, angry face.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Zoo at the Edge of the World - Eric Kahn Gale

Title: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
Author: Eric Kahn Gale
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 233 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: November 28, 2014
Finished: December 2, 2014

From the inside cover:

Marlin is not slow, or mute; what he is is a stutterer, and that makes it impossible for him to convince people otherwise. What he is also is a Rackham: the younger son of the world-famous explorer Ronan Rackham, renowned for his daring exploits in the jungles of South America, taming wild beasts and filling in the blank spaces on the map. Ronan is the owner and proprietor of the Zoo at the Edge of the World, a resort where the well-to-do from all over the globe can come to experience the last bit of the wild left at the end of the nineteenth century. For Ronan, each day is a new opportunity to cast a light into the dark recesses of the world; for Marlin, each day is a struggle: to speak, to communicate, to live up to the lofty expectations that his family name carries. This isn't easy when the only ones who understand him are his father and his pet monkey.

In order to impress a powerful duke who comes to visit the zoo, Marlin's father ventures into the jungle and brings back a mysterious black jaguar, the only one in captivity. Everyone is terrified of it, including Marlin - until one night, when the jaguar confers upon him a powerful gift. Soon, Marlin finds himself with a difficult choice to make and, finally, something to say. If only he can figure out how to say it.

Marlin is twelve years old and lives in South America with his father and older brother. The family operates the Zoo at the Edge of the World, an exotic resort for the wealthy and elite to vacation to. Everyone but Ronan thinks Marlin is a dim-witted idiot, but he has a wonderful affinity with animals and can actually speak to them without a stutter. When his father captures a jaguar as the main attraction for the zoo, Marlin soon discovers that he now has the ability to communicate directly with animals and can understand them. He soon solves all the little problems the zoo has been having by talking to the animals, but also realizes a family visiting the zoo could threaten his family's livelihood as well as that of the animals and needs to take action to save his home.

The book has a wonderful evocative setting. You don't often see books set in the wild jungles of South America during a vaguely reminiscent Victorian era time period, so this was refreshing to read.  The themes of colonialism and control over things that shouldn't be within our control are quite powerful, with Marlin making the choice about what kind of person he wants to be rather than what others expect him to be.

A great little book that was a surprisingly great read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Marlin and the jaguar are featured, it's a powerful image.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Winter People - Rebekah L. Purdy

Title: The Winter People
Author: Rebekah L. Purdy
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 24, 2014
Finished: November 27, 2014

From the inside cover:

Salome Montgomery fears winter - the cold, the snow, the ice, but most of all, the frozen pond she fell through as a child. Haunted by the voices of the strange beings that pulled her to safety, she hasn't forgotten their warning to "stay away." For eleven years, she has avoided the winter woods...until she is left in charge of maintaining her grandparents' estate. This includes the "special gifts" that must be left at the back of the property.

Salome discovers she's a key player in a world she's tried for years to avoid. At the centre of this world is the strange and beautiful Nevin. Cursed with dark secrets and knowledge of the creatures in the woods, he takes Salome's life in a new direction - one where she'll have to decide between her longtime crush, Colton, who could cure her fear of winter. Or Nevin, who, along with an appointed bodyguard, Gareth, protects her from the darkness that swirls in the snowy backdrop.

An evil that, given the chance, will kill her.

I saw the cover and read the synopsis (and it just happened to be getting cold and snowy here) and it put me in the right mood to read this. Unfortunately this book just didn't live up to its potential. It was an engrossing read and there were aspects I quite enjoyed, but in the end there were too many things that made me roll my eyes and detracted from the overall enjoyment.

Salome fell through the frozen pond on her grandparents' property when she was six. Though she was mysteriously rescued, she was forever traumatized by the experience. It didn't help that she hears voices in the winter too, voices that speak about her, voices that want to kill her. Avoiding winter by becoming a hermit during those months has helped till now, but when her grandparents vacation south for their health and her mother injured and her father working, Salome is the only one to maintain the property while they're gone.

While working in the woods, she meets Nevin, your typical stoic romantic interest that spurns her at times, claiming he's no good for her and that he hurts those he loves, while at the same time being incredibly enticing. She's also dating Colton, her classmate and long-time crush, who she discovers has a smidge of an anger-management problem. At the same time, bodyguard Gareth keeps saving her butt from constant frigid dangers in the Michigan woods, all the while being very appealing as a love interest as well. Eventually Salome gets it together enough to connect the very obvious pieces of the situation (your obligatory curse of course), and tries to solve it in order to be with one of the three potential love interests.

First off, the writing falls flat. The author overuses profanity, slang, and general low-brow language that gives the impression that a seventeen-year-old is not only the focus of the book but also the author of it. Considering the content of the book (faeries, supernatural, etc.), I would expect more from what I saw.

Secondly, Salome is not what I would consider a realistic character or one I would recommend as a strong female protagonist. Salome is very passive, she can't even research things properly on her own. I don't know about you, but if I almost died several times from freaky ice creatures and suspected my family was hiding things from me about said freaky things, I'd have my butt on the computer or in the library until I figured that crap out for myself rather than putting it off because I wasn't ready for it. She is constantly being rescued and even refers to herself as a damsel in distress. I'm not saying female characters need to be strong 100% of the time and can't be rescued at all, but the level of dependence she has on all three guys just gets repetitive and old. She also at one point  dates three guys at a time, which later drops to two. She is indecisive and strings them along because she can't figure out what she wants, which is a bad example for girls to see, and is a horrible stereotype of women that I would love to never see again in a YA book. And the portrayal of Kadie is not better, seriously all that girl talks about is screwing guys, talk about a one-dimensional character.

Thirdly, the cliches, oh the cliches. From the love square (this is definitely a first in my experience) of moody, unpredictable men that have you screaming at Salome, "run for the hills, girl!", to the "I'm no good for you, I can't kiss you, you need to forget about me" line from Nevin, to efforts to prolong the book through Salome's family's refusal to tell her anything about the curse or even point her in the right direction despite the number of near fatal encounters she has, there's just too many aspects that have me banging my head against the book in frustration.

Granted, there are things I liked. I did enjoy the setting. You don't often see books set in Michigan in the winter, so I liked the atmosphere that gave to the novel. The faery folk were quite mysterious and spooky at times, so there's a plus as well. Gareth as a character was enjoyable, he is the better choice out of the group of Salome's suitors and one that doesn't act like a douche or a psychopath. I like the author's choice of Salome as the main character's name, I'm still figuring out if the cultural significance behind the name fits with Salome in this book, but I give the author credit for using a uncommon name. The entire novel was very engrossing despite the problems listed above, regardless of what I felt about Salome I still wanted to know what happened to the girl.

I'm torn. I think this is worth a borrow from the library, but will eventually infuriate some readers to the point of abandoning the book.

Thoughts on the cover:
This cover is freaking gorgeous and fits completely with the theme and setting of the book. I love the pensive look in the model's face and having her face fade into the trees and snow with the gate at the back.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates - Caroline Carlson

Title: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot (Book 1)
Author: Caroline Carlson
Publisher: Harper, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 344 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy, Adventure
Started: November 19, 2014
Finished: November 22, 2014

From the inside cover:

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors. She particularly enjoys defying authority, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There's only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.

Girls belong at Miss Pimm's Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, learning to waltz, faint, and curtsy. But Hilary and her dearest friend, the gargoyle, have no use for such frivolous lessons - they are pirates! (Or very nearly.)

To escape from a life of petticoats and politeness, Hilary answers a curious advertisement for a pirate crew and suddenly finds herself swept up in a seafaring adventure that may or may not involve a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn't exist, a rogue governess who insists on propriety, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous - and unexpected - villain on the High Seas.

Will Hilary find the treasure in time? Will she become a true pirate after all? And what will become of the gargoyle?

I heard the first chapter of this when I was teaching a junior class and the school librarian was reading it to them. She thankfully told me the name of the book so I could find it and read the rest at home.

Hilary lives in the land of Augusta and is the daughter of Admiral Westfield. The upper class that her father holds a prestigious position in abhors piracy, but that doesn't stop Hilary from wanting that as her destiny instead of the dainty, sheltered life as a refined lady that her parents would rather have for her. But when the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates rejects her application and she is forced to attend Miss Pimm's school, she has to be creative and daring if she wants to achieve her dream.

This is a wonderful adventure story in the vein of classic tales, made even better by the fact that the protagonist is a strong, smart female. Hilary doesn't stick to traditional gender roles and advocates for herself, so she makes my list of a good role model for all kids, but particularly for young girls. The novel's language is slightly more advanced than your average middle grade book, which makes for a great challenge for younger readers. The gargoyle is admittedly my favourite, he brings a lot of comic relief and his conversations with Hilary are quite witty and enjoyable.

A story kids will enjoy (who doesn't love a good pirate story?), especially for the humour and the awesomeness that is Hilary.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it, it's nice and dynamic, though I wish the characters on the ship were bigger with more detail. I like how they managed to work the gargoyle into the logo.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Bond Street Books (Doubleday), 2006 (Hardcover)
Length: 408 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 10, 2014
Finished: November 18, 2014

From the inside cover:

All children mythologize their birth...So begins the prologue of reclusive Vida Winter's collection of stories, which are as famous for the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale as they are for the delight and enchantment of the twelve that do exist.

The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself -all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter's story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.

As Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good, Margaret is mesmerized. It is a tale of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.

Margaret succumbs to the power of Vida's storytelling but remains suspicious of the author's sincerity. She demands the truth from Vida, and together they confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us, a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life.

The ladies in my English workroom recommended this to me, you'd think one of them was a dealer of illegal substances the way they were passing this around. Of course I've learned to trust the recommendations of fellow English teachers, so I gave this a go. I was not disappointed, this story was every bit engrossing and beautiful, I didn't want the book to end.

Margaret lives in the flat above her father's antique bookstore, and in addition to manning the store and being well-versed in the keeping of old books, she also dabbles in writing biographies. One day she receives a letter from the famous writer Vida Winter, asking her to come and be the author of Vida's life story. Margaret, ever the academic, researches the matter first. She finds that Miss Winter has told over a dozen different accounts of her life to various reporters and newspapers around the release dates of her various books. Margaret is intrigued but cautious, and makes Miss Winter give her some facts that can be checked by the public record before she completely agrees to write her story. Miss Winter then takes Margaret on a journey of the history of the Angelfield family, of George and Mathilde, their children Charlie and Isabelle, their daughters Adeline and Emmeline, and the secrets and scandal that followed the family as the years passed. Through research and a lot of investigating, Margaret slowly puts the pieces together involving a kind caterer living near the ruins of Angelfield, the ghost who is rumoured to haunt the grounds, and who Miss Winter really is.

This book is, first of all, a great homage to the act of reading in general. Margaret loves books more than other people (without sacrificing her likability as a character), she is well-read and loves the old classics like Jane Eyre, and she gets free reign of her father's old bookstore where she encounters rare books that people never see. When Margaret finally reads Miss Winter's books (because she spurns modern literature most of the time), she falls in love with Vida's storytelling that captivates her interest. Miss Winter's accounts of the Angelfield family read like a classic themselves, so this is almost like reading two distinct stories that eventually merge to become one. Plus, who doesn't love Jane Eyre references in stories?

Also, something that I noticed was that although the sections of the story involving Margaret and the elderly Miss Winter take place supposedly in modern times (there's nothing to indicate if it takes place in an earlier decade), and Margaret does a lot of research as part of her investigation, not a single electronic device is mentioned. No cell phones, no internet, all information gathered in this story is done the old-fashioned way: using books and calling around to get any info you can't find via books. I have to say I really enjoyed that aspect as a person who came of age just as technology and the internet was exploding, I first learned how to do research the old-fashioned way (with actual encyclopedia volumes) and the technology that didn't come out till I was in high school only sought to make the research process easier but didn't replace that earlier knowledge.

Secondly, the story is wonderfully engaging and keeps you guessing as to the outcome. Is Miss Winter really who she says she is? What is up with the twins, and for that matter, the whole Angelfield family? Who is Aurelius' real mother? What's the deal with Margaret's story? Considering the premise of the entire book is an old lady telling her life-story in a musty English estate house, the end product is nothing short of amazing.

If you're a reader and a lover of literature in general, you need to read this. The style of engrossing storytelling full of mystery and suspense echoes traditional novels that we don't often see today.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the image includes the colourful details that Margaret describes when she sees Miss Winter's books for the first time.