Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Red Queen - Victoria Aveyard

Title: Red Queen
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 383 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction, Fantasy
Started: March 2, 2015
Finished: March 4, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Mare Barrow's world is divided by blood - those with red and those with silver. Mare and her family are lowly Reds, destined to serve the Silver elite whose supernatural abilities make them nearly gods. Mare steals what she can to help her family survive, but when her best friend is conscripted into the army she gambles everything to win his freedom. A twist of fate leads her to the royal palace itself, where, in front of the king and all his nobles, she discovers a power of her own - an ability she didn't know she had. Except...her blood is Red.

To hide this impossibility, the king forces her into the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks her new position to aid the Scarlet Guard - the leaders of a Red rebellion. Her actions put into motion a deadly and violent dance, pitting prince against prince - and Mare against her own heart.

From debut author Victoria Aveyard comes a lush, vivd fantasy series where loyalty and desire can tear you apart and the only certainty is betrayal.

Review:
I'll admit, I only picked this up for the awesome cover...and the fact that it's received an incredible amount of hype. And hooooooo boy is the hype deserved, this is a great start to a new series I can't wait to revisit.

Seventeen-year-old Mare lives in desolate poverty in a Red village, mere months away from her eighteenth birthday and mandatory conscription into the army. An encounter with a mysterious stranger outside a bar leads to a job opportunity at the palace, and a way out of the army. While serving Silvers at an event, a near fatal encounter awakens Mare's dormant ability, one she shouldn't have because only Silvers have god-like powers, and Mare doesn't bleed silver. In order to maintain the Silvers' position of privilege and authority, the king concocts a story about Mare (now Mareena) and her origins, and intends to marry her off to the younger prince, Maven. In the midst of lessons about Silver customs and training to control her new power, Mare must navigate a new world of political intrigue and power-hungry Silvers while trying to aid a rebellion.

This series, at least the start of it, is a strange yet appealing cross between The Hunger Games, The Selection, and also a bit of Game of Thrones. Mare and the other Reds are forced to watch gladiator-types games fought by Silvers to showcase their powers in order to frighten Reds into submission, all Red children are conscripted into the army at age eighteen with no real end in sight, and the Silvers are ostentatious and entitled with no concern for the Reds that serve them. The Silver noble girls must showcase their abilities in order to be considered as a bride for Prince Cal, Mare must constantly be on her guard against the other girls and their families that try to knock her down a peg, and she must learn to trust no one in order to make it out alive.

I loved the plot twist at the end, I honestly didn't see it coming and it made things deliciously evil...and I can't get into more detail without going into spoiler territory, but it was good. I liked the development of Cal, Maven, and Mare, and Julian was a personal favourite of mine (I love the mentor characters).

Recommendation:
If you're looking for a new series with lots of political intrigue, alliances, and betrayal, with some great X-Men-like powers and bloody fights thrown in for good measure, then this is for you. I'll be eagerly awaiting the next instalment when it comes out next year.

Thoughts on the cover:
Just gorgeous, and very much encapsulates the essence of the book.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Hidden Girl - Shyima Hall

Title: Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave
Author: Shyima Hall
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BYFR, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 232 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: February 25, 2015
Finished: February 26, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Shyima Hall was eight years old when her parents sold her into domestic slavery. One of eleven children, Shyima lived with her family in poverty in Egypt. When an older sister, a domestic servant in Cairo, was dismissed from her job for stealing, Shyima's parents made a deal with her sister's employers. In order to repay the debt, Shyima would take her sister's place.

This began Shyima's life as a slave. Her captors, a wealthy couple, referred to her as "stupid girl" and forced her to wait hand and foot on their family. Any money she was paid for her work went directly to her parents, with whom she had very little contact. Two years into her bondage, on August 3, 2000, Shyima's captors moved to the United States, and illegally trafficked Shyima in with them.

Modern-day slavery is a painful reality for thousands of adults and children in the world - and in the United States. This is Shyima's harrowing story of life as a child slave, and her long, inspiring road to freedom.

Review:
As soon as I saw this in my library's catalogue I knew I had to read it. There are stories of both historical and modern slavery for adults, but I haven't found many modern-day slavery accounts geared towards younger readers.

Shyima opens her story by describing her early life in Egypt with her family. Because they lived in poverty, Shyima and many of her siblings (mostly the girls) did not attend school, so she was already at a disadvantage at the age of eight when her parents were coerced into essentially giving Shyima to her older sister's employers to repay their debt and regain the family honour. Her captors used Shyima as one of many domestic servants in their house in Egypt before moving to California two years later, taking her with them. A concerned neighbour made a call to CPS two years after that, when Shyima was twelve-years-old, prompting her removal from the house and the beginning of a long journey of foster homes, court battles, and tearful phone calls to her parents in Egypt.

Shyima's story tackles very difficult subject matter in an appropriate way, not just for young adults but I would also give this book to a mature preteen as well. The language in the book is very approachable, which is quite an accomplishment considering her story involves many instances of various forms of abuse and neglect, plus whole sections which deal with Child Protective Services, the courts system, immigration, and citizenship. I like how her story is very open and realistic and doesn't sugar-coat anything, including the abuse she suffered at the hands of her biological family to the theft of her court-awarded settlement money by her adoptive parents.

I also like how down-to-earth she is in her account, she frequently mentions children in the USA taking their education for granted and how she wanted nothing more than to go to school in order to study and improve her lot in life, about how her past experiences made it very difficult to trust people so she gives others few chances even now, and how she needed to redefine her view of family when so many people entrusted to care for her let her down miserably.

Recommendation:
This is a wonderfully honest account of modern-day child slavery that is more than appropriate for children and young adults alike. I highly encourage teachers to have it in their school libraries, especially for struggling readers since the language is on the simpler side.

Thoughts on the cover:
The image of the child looking out the window is very appropriate for Shyima's story, and how the model is covered in shadow is actually quite symbolic, whether intentional or not.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Empire of Shadows - Miriam Forster

Title: Empire of Shadows
Author: Miriam Forster
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 489 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 24, 2015
Finished: February 25, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Cast out of her family three years ago, Mara turned to the only place that would take her - a school where students train to protect others. But Mara is stunned when guarding a noble girl in the Empire's capital turns out to be more dangerous than she could have imagined. More shocking still, she finds the boy she thought she had lost forever outside the gates of her new home.

Mara knew the dizzying Imperial city would hold dangers. How could she have known that her heart, as well as her life, would be at stake?

Empire of Shadows will take readers on a spellbinding journey into the world Miriam Forster first introduced in City of a Thousand Dolls - a world with a divided society, deadly courtiers, heroic traitors, and deeply laid conspiracies.

Review:
I read City of a Thousand Dolls a couple years back and loved it to pieces, so picking up this novel set in the same universe (it's actually a prequel, but you don't realize it until much later) goes without saying. Thankfully all the things I loved about the first book are present here again, which allowed me to seamlessly slip back into this incredible book's universe.

Mara is a tiger Sune, cast out of her tribe for a terrible crime. Taking refuge at the Order of Khatar and vowing to forever remain in her human form, Mara hopes to offer penance by training to be a bodyguard that chooses who they serve until death. Upon her release three years later, she must travel to find that charge. Along the way, she meets Emil and his twin brother Stefan of the Kildi, the finds her way to the capital city of Kamal where she is hired to guard and later pledges herself to Revathi sa'Hoi of the Flower caste. When news of rebellion spreads throughout the city, Emil, Stefan, Mara, and Revathi become entangled in it and try to make it out alive while still retaining their humanity.

The same amazing world-building is present here again. The south-east Asian influences abound here, mostly Indian but I also got the sense of perhaps Middle Eastern among the Kildi, but that could've been just me. We get more of a feel for the Sune (the shape-shifters) and the Kildi (the nomadic peoples) in this book through Mara, Esmer, Emil, and Stefan, and also a great look into the nobility through Revathi. Although this book didn't quite have the suspense and the intrigue that the first book did, it's still an enriching experience to be able to add to the reader's knowledge of the book's universe and history, which is expansive and impressive.

I loved Mara as a character. She's so overwrought with guilt and trying to make amends for it, but eventually grows to understand that her past actions don't define her as a individual, that she needs to embrace her animal self as part of her character in order to be true to herself. I also love that she's a tiger Sune, and that we also got to see more than just the cat Sune from the first book, it was fun to read about characters just transforming into tigers and bears instantaneously and switching back so seamlessly.

I also have to give the author credit for the romance between Mara and Emil, it was very well done. Though the feelings of love come on pretty quickly, Mara and Emil don't allow the relationship to blind them to other things going on around them. Mara pledges herself to Revathi despite knowing that vow will bind the two together beyond all others, because she knows Revathi needs a friend to protect her, and at that moment, that is more important to her than her relationship with Emil. The friendship between the two girls was very refreshing too, Revathi doesn't have friends in the palace because of the back-stabbing that court life entails, so seeing her able to confide and trust in Mara was sweet. The little princes stole the show whenever they were in any scenes at the palace, I loved them.

I loved how you didn't quite see the connection between the books until much later. Esmer appears in both books, but since the timeline is difficult to measure, you aren't sure how everything comes together until the very end.

Recommendation:
If you haven't read City of a Thousand Dolls and this accompanying book, Empire of Shadows, you need to read them. You'll be met by a wonderful fantasy realm that's rooted in eastern influences, with amazingly well-rounded characters, and a story that sucks you in and doesn't let you go until long after you've reached the last page.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the similarities between the first book's cover and this one, the statues almost guarding the entrance with the palace in the background, complete with Mara and Emil in the center to the point where you barely even notice that they're there.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

National Geographic Kids World Atlas - National Geographic

Title: National Geographic Kids World Atlas (Fourth Edition)
Author: National Geographic
Publisher: National Geographic Society, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Children's Nonfiction
Started: February 22, 2015
Finished: February 22, 2015

Summary:
From Amazon.ca:

National Geographic's classic atlas for kids is now fully revised and updated, with a reduced trim that makes it easy to carry and easy to browse. Complete with geo-themed games, crosswords, picture puzzles and more, this is the atlas for today's young explorers, as well as the perfect homework reference source.

National Geographic is committed to being the number one provider of the best atlases for young people of all ages. This new edition of the award-winning atlas for kids includes the latest data, newest maps and graphs, a fresh and compelling design, and lively essays about the world and its wonders.

Review:
I've been slowly building my daughter's library, specifically the non-fiction section since we've got fiction texts up to our eyeballs. I always pay attention to what I see kids reading in the classrooms I'm in, and they have been reading the National Geographic Kids line of books more often lately, and I can now see why. So when it came time to buy a good atlas for my child, I went straight to this one, and I'm glad I did.

The National Geographic Kids line of books are great examples of non-fiction texts geared to kids, the same as the DK brand that I always recommend. The few I've seen or bought are incredibly colourful, and have that great strategy of short, peppered bits of text with accompanying pictures and other graphic text, which works great with kids once they learn how to navigate books like that.

This atlas begins with double-page spread explanations of how to read maps and the different types of maps kids will encounter: physical and political. In each section there are maps on climate zones, vegetation, population patterns, and literacy rates, among others. From there come the maps of countries based on regions they're in, like Canada and the USA get their own two-page spreads, but Mexico and Central America are grouped together, the same with the Balkans and Cyprus, and Northern Africa. So each country doesn't necessarily get their own page, but they rather zone in on regions. I was pleasantly surprised that they split Russia up into the European part and the Asia part though. Each countries individual stats are shown at the end of the book with their flags, so at least that was included somewhere. I also liked how they had a section on the oceans as well. There's also digital content as well via the app you can download (scan the pages with the app to reveal content or view online).

Recommendation:
An excellent atlas for kids, though I wouldn't recommend it for beginning readers due to the vocabulary, more for 8-year-olds and up.

Thoughts on the cover:
Fairly straight-forward, and I'm impressed that it isn't overly juvenile either.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Boundary - Heather Terrell

Title: Boundary: The Books of Eva
Author: Heather Terrell
Publisher: Soho Teen, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 271 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: February 20, 2015
Finished: February 20, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Eva is the first Maiden in Aerie history to train as an Archon: a sacred leader of the New North. All eyes are watching as she prepares to uncover the Relics of the evil past. Wounds remain, both from the harrowing Testing and the murder of her brother, Eamon, but she has learned to feign grace. And although she is betrothed to Jasper, she still finds herself drawn to Lukas, a Boundary dweller and former servant who may know who killed her twin brother.

Her relationship with Lukas is forbidden. And his conviction that she is the Angakkuq, a mystical figure destined to destroy the Aerie, is even more dangerous. On her very first Archon expedition, she uncovers the Genesis, the legendary ship that brought the Founders to the New North; its contents threaten the fragile balance between the Aerie and the Boundary. Eva's world is shattered, but she may be the only one - as both Archon and Angakkuq - who can prevent a war that will annihilate their entire civilization.

Review:
I read the first book in this series, Relic, last year and it was one of my favourite reads. The story is relatively original for a YA dystopian, and the premise was so interesting I was hooked right from the beginning. Thankfully this second book did not disappoint, though it did seem more rushed than the previous one (which is strange because both books were essentially the same length).

The second book picks up right where Relic left off, with Eva jumping into Archon training as well as planning for her marriage to Jasper. As expected, most of the men are not happy with her appointment as an Archon since she is the only female, and they make their opinions quite obvious. Knowing they will try anything to discredit her, Eva needs to make herself indispensable on the excavation to unearth Relics from the Genesis, the ship that carried the survivors of the Healing floods to the New North. With help from Jasper and Lukas, Eva manages to uncover documents and clues that point to the real reason behind New North's existence, which makes Eva question everything she thought she knew.

This book has many of the things from Relic that I loved: the journey and harrowing conditions, the exploration of how our modern-day devices could be viewed by future generations, Eva's creative writing, and great world-building. And I must say, the love triangle panned out in a way that really surprised me, so I give the author credit for that. The novel felt a little rushed towards the end, but not to the point where it negatively affected my experience.

Recommended:
If you're read Relic, you've probably already read this. If you haven't read the beginning of this amazing series, you need to give it a try.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the pose shown, but the cover models look slightly awkward for some reason. I'm assuming that is Jasper opposite Eva, since the guy pictured doesn't really fit Lukas' characteristics as described.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Princess of Thorns - Stacey Jay

Title: Princess of Thorns
Author: Stacey Jay
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 9, 2015
Finished: February 15, 2015

Summary:
From the author's website:

Games of Thrones meets Grimm's fairy tales in this twisted, fast-paced romantic fantasy-adventure about Sleeping Beauty's daughter, a warrior princess who must fight to reclaim her throne.

Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy, yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome, but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora's throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it's too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise keep them from finding their one true love?

Review:
I've read a few of the author's books before, and she is amazingly good at retellings, so I was really looking forward to her take on Sleeping Beauty. Thankfully I was not disappointed, and though there were a few areas that fell short, overall this was an enjoyable read.

First off, the story looks quite different from your typical Sleeping Beauty tale. Aurora in this version is actually the Sleeping Beauty's daughter. Along with brother Jor, the two were imprisoned with their mother by the ogre queen because only briar-born children can bring about the end of her rule according to ye old prophecy. Their mother sacrifices herself in order to pass along her fairy blessings  to Aurora so that the children might live, but the magic takes a bit of a dark turn. Though Aurora can kick butt like nobody's business, her mother's intention that she not be taken advantage of by men turned out to transform men that kiss her into zombies that want to do her bidding. And though that thought can be tempting at times, it doesn't lead to a very fulfilling love life. So Aurora is resolved instead to reclaim her throne and her captured brother from the ogre queen, but she needs an army to do so. Enter Prince Niklaas, the 11th prince of a neighbouring kingdom who is also cursed. Mistaking Aurora for her brother while she is dressed like a boy, Niklaas asks to be taken to the princess, while "Jor" asks for an army to save a friend.

What happens henceforth is a darkly entertaining read. Aurora and Niklaas are both wonderful characters with distinct voices (the narration alternates between both their points of view). Aurora is a bit rough around the edges, which is quite refreshing in a heroine; and Niklaas was a complete playboy that I normally would've detested but instead adored. Their relationship was wonderfully crafted and developed slowly, and I can't thank the author enough for not rushing it like so many other YA novels.

The only thing that irked me was the lack of world-building. The world itself was enticing, but so much was just put out there without explanation, it was confusing and lacked any real depth.

Recommendation:
An enjoyable retelling, though definitely not one you would expect.

Thoughts on the cover:
A good image of Aurora, though I was kind of expecting a more intense and striking pose.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Raising Your Spirited Child - Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Title: Raising Your Spirited Child
Author: Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Publisher: William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2006 (Paperback)
Length: 468 pages
Genre: Adult; Parenting
Started: January 27, 2015
Finished: February 7, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

The spirited child - often called "difficult" or "strong-willed" - possesses traits we value in adults yet find challenging in children. Research shows that spirited kids are wired to be "more" - by temperament, they are more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, and uncomfortable with change than the average child. In this revised edition of the award-winning classic, voted one of the top twenty books for parents, Kurcinka provides vivre examples and a refreshingly positive viewpoint. Raising Your Spirited Child will help you:


  • understand your child's - and your own - temperamental traits
  • discover the power of positive - rather than negative labels
  • cope with tantrums and power struggles when they do occur
  • plan for success with a simple four-step program
  • develop strategies for handling mealtimes, sibling rivalry, bedtimes, holidays, and school, among other situations
Review:
As a teacher, after reading this book I now realize I've encountered many spirited children in my classes. I usually like them a lot even though they aren't the easiest to deal with in a classroom setting because I know that their personalities will serve them well in their adult life (I'm a teacher who fully admits the school system is in no way 100% indicative of real life and that the "perfect student" doesn't necessarily succeed in adulthood). I wanted my daughter to be like these kids, I wanted a child with spark in their personality. Turns out I got what I wished for (I actually have quite a few of these spirited traits as well, so she takes after me in this regard), but I never would have realized how difficult a spirited child is to parent. 

We've all encountered spirited kids I'm sure: the ones that are more sensitive than all the others, the ones who don't adapt as fast as the others, the ones that notice everything you don't want them to pay attention to, the ones who are more stubborn and won't give up easily, and the ones who are just so intense. They're also the ones with whom regular parenting techniques and tricks don't really work on, because their temperaments are different than those of most kids. My daughter is like this: oh so smart, incredibly funny, and the sweetest kid ever, but definitely is not a happy-go-lucky, go-with-the-flow kind of child. Every experience with her needs to be planned out with amazing precision, with back-up-plans and exit strategies if things don't go according to plan. I used to blame myself, especially after her daycare would tell us of a particularly trying day, thinking "What am I doing wrong? Why can't I get her to behave like the other kids?" Turns out that she can behave just fine, she just needs some extra considerations the other kids don't, which is outlined in this book.

The author lists the characteristics that most spirited children possess:
  • Intensity - powerful reactions regardless of the emotion behind it
  • Persistence - assertive, can "lock" into an activity important to them
  • Sensitivity - keenly aware of every sensation like noises, lights, smells, textures, even the moods of others; making them easily overwhelmed at times
  • Perceptiveness - they notice everything to the point where others think they are not listening 
  • Adaptability - uncomfortable with change and unable to shift easily from one activity to another, though this does improve with age
The "bonus" traits, which spirited kids may or may not have:
  • Regularity - doesn't keep to much of a schedule in terms of eating, sleeping, etc.
  • Energy - high energy levels
  • First Reaction - instinctively withdraw from anything new until they can warm up to it, related to the issues with adaptability
  • Mood - tendency to be serious and analytical
I realized both my daughter and I possess many of these traits (mostly from the first list), particularly the poor adaptability and sensitivity, plus we're introverts, which doesn't help. It was like a lightbulb moment in my head, I finally figured out why she reacted the way she did when it was time to transition, or why she would do better in smaller groups, or why I need to research and overly prepare for every new thing I do until it becomes familiar. I also realized that my daughter and other kids like her don't do these things to be difficult, they simply can't handle certain things, and no amount of wanting them to "suck it up and deal" will help them improve. It only took some of the suggested  minor changes to how we deal with things to see an improvement in our daughter's behaviour. There's even a few things that I realized I employed almost automatically in my classroom that help with spirited kids: writing the day's schedule on the board, and explaining assignments in small increments rather than explaining the entire huge thing all at once. 

Recommendation:
If you're a teacher, parent, or involved with children in any capacity, you'll want to read this book. It's truly an eye-opener about behaviour patterns in children that we value in adults, but where kids still need help in regulating these intense temperaments.

Thoughts on the cover:
This totally looks like a pose my daughter would be caught in, so I give them credit for realism.