Thursday, October 9, 2014

On the Way to Everywhere - Kirsten B. Feldman

Title: On the Way to Everywhere
Author: Kirsten B. Feldman
Publisher: Independently published (Paperback), 2014 (Review copy is an ARC from the author)
Length: 178 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: October 7, 2014
Finished: October 9, 2014

Summary: 
From the back cover:

Though she's named for the magical Harry Potter, six-foot, dreadlocked Harry Kavanaugh doesn't find any wonder in her daily life at an exclusive girls' school outside of Washington D.C. In fact she wants nothing more than to chuck her lot and enter the wilds of public school - too bad she didn't reckon on a trip to the hospital, a runaway, and a renegade or three, which just might show her a different path to everywhere.

Review:
I'm so happy I got the chance to review this book, I would've missed a wonderful coming-of-age story otherwise.

To say that Harry doesn't fit in would be an understatement. She's an intelligent, tall redhead who doesn't fit your stereotypical image of femininity, so she stands out amongst the other girls at her private school. She's the product of her parents' one last hurrah after their divorce, so her father, stepmother, and half-sister Felicity don't exactly treat her well. Her mother, Imogene Gayle, is Harry's opposite, self-absorbed and flighty, who also teaches dance at the school. Harry just wants to find somewhere she can be accepted, so she hatches a plan to flunk out of Boltmore so her mother will allow her to attend public school with her friend William. However, due to the support of her older brother Jeremy, the influence of her English teacher, a budding romance with William, and finding a mandatory sport for PE that she actually enjoys; Harry begins to rethink her grand plan.

Harry is a wonderful character. She's spunky with a dark sense of humour, and stays true to herself rather than put on a mask to fit in; something a lot of teenagers could learn from. She's equally admirable and vulnerable, desperately wanting acknowledgement from her mother and father instead of their indifference. This makes her realistic and likeable, I was rooting for her from the beginning.

I also felt that the other characters had equal opportunity for growth. Harry's parents, though deplorable in the beginning, were actually worthy of sympathy by the end. Jeremy is just wonderful, I wanted to rip him out of the book so he could be my brother. Even Harry's school counsellor Vishnu had his moment.

I enjoyed the depiction of Harry's various relationships. Jeremy is an incredible big brother and advocates for his little sister, something sibling relationships in novels don't portray too often. In turn, Harry is supportive of Jeremy's relationship with his new boyfriend (kudos to the author for the LGBT reference). Harry's slowly developing romance with William was heart-warming to observe, not to mention avoiding all the cliches YA novels tend to fall into (yay for no insta-love!). Harry even manages to find common ground with her mother, which was pleasantly surprising.

I have to give the author credit on her writing style. Harry's narration draws readers in to her fast-paced, sarcastic wit; while the successful world-building puts you right in the upper class environment Harry longs to escape. Also, the scenes with Frannie were simply hilarious, all dog owners will be able to relate.

Recommendation:
A spectacular coming-of-age story with a relatable heroine, admirable relationships, and growth experiences for all the characters involved. A must-read! The book is available here if you wish to buy it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Fits perfectly with Harry's personality. I love how they included the Doc Martens.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Unbored Games: Serious Fun for Everyone - Joshua Glenn & Elizabeth Foy Larsen

Title: Unbored Games: Serious Fun for Everyone
Author: Joshua Glenn & Elizabeth Foy Larsen
Publisher: Bloomsbury, October 14, 2014 (Paperback) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 175 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Children's Nonfiction
Started: October 6, 2014
Finished: October 6, 2014


Summary:
From the back of the book:

The best games book ever - for kids and the whole family, from the team that brought you the critically acclaimed award-winning bestselling UNBORED: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun. Featuring more than 70 games, from the traditional Highland Games and old-fashioned parlour contests to Google Earth challenges and the best game apps - plus ideas for hacking, customizing, and making up your own games, too!

Review:
I bought and reviewed the original book, Unbored, two years ago. It still has a coveted spot on my bookshelf because I've always loved books like Unbored and The Dangerous Book for Boys, what I call "compendium of information" books that have lovely bite-sized pieces of information about topics that are irresistible to kids.

Whereas Unbored looked at a greater variety of topics, Unbored Games looks specifically at games of all kinds: card, board, sports, apps, outdoor, collaborative, you name it. Normally I prefer a wider span of information in these types of books and narrowing it down to one area would bother me, but there is so much to cover on such a beloved topic that I actually applaud their focus. This is the kind of book you hand your kid on a rainy day or on Christmas vacation when they're starting to look like zombies from lack of stimulation. I have witnessed kids take up a whole day doing activities from books like this, so I know how effective they are.

What I particularly like about the Unbored books is that they're equally appealing to both genders. Boys and girls are equally featured in the illustrations participating in the activities, wearing pants and hoodies of the same unisex colour palette (red, green, blue, orange, grey). So much in our media is the very opposite of gender-balanced (as a parent and a teacher I'm very aware of this), so I really appreciate it when companies don't pull the whole "let's make twice as much by making one for boys and one for girls" thing.

I think even adults will enjoy this book, especially those who love games. I noticed a lot of oldies in here from my childhood, so there's definitely a nostalgia factor in here as well. They actually describe a version of a survival game I played in grade 5 when we were learning about food chains, plus lots of others I remember playing like Wink Murder and the jump rope variants. They also have the rules for Daifugo, which other anime geeks like myself might remember as Daihinmin, although when we played it in high school we called it a different name that I can't write here.

I have to give the authors credit for mentioning a lot of really incredible games. Board games like Settlers of Catan and Dutch Blitz, hand clapping games and card games, apps that kids can play with adults, outdoor games that kids can play at recess, and a really creative water gun game involving alka-seltzer tablets. They even talk about ARG and larping, and games that help benefit others.

Recommendation:
All parents, teachers, camp counsellors, anyone who interacts with kids needs a copy of this book. If you've ever been stuck wondering about entertainment options for a birthday party that don't cost a fortune, if you've had students bouncing off the walls during indoor recess, or if you have kids that seem to exhaust all other options on school vacations, this book is for you.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity from the first Unbored book, this time in yellow with silver lettering.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Where Silence Gathers - Kelsey Sutton

Title: Where Silence Gathers
Author: Kelsey Sutton
Publisher: Flux Books, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 29, 2014
Finished: October 4, 2014

Summary:
From the back of the book:

For as long as she can remember, Alexandrea Tate has been able to see personified Emotions, and she's found a friend in Revenge. He's her constant companion as she waits outside Nate Foster's house, clutching a gun. Every night since Nate's release from prison, Alex has tried to work up the courage to exact her own justice on him for the drunk driving accident that killed her family.

But there's one problem: Forgiveness. When he appears, Alex is faced with a choice - moving on or getting even. It's impossible to decide with Forgiveness whispering in one ear...and Revenge whispering in the other.

Review:
The premise of the book got me hooked from the moment I read the summary. This is actually a companion book to the author's first novel, Some Quiet Place. This instalment stands alone and simply uses the same premise as the first book.

Alex's is the sole survivor of a drunk driving accident that killed her mom, dad, and little brother when she was twelve. Since that day, she's been able to see Emotions in human form; beings that will appear beside or drape themselves over herself or others as they feel that particular emotion. Revenge has been her best friend for the past six years, and now that Alex is eighteen and the man who killed her family is out of prison, Alex has to choose between Revenge and the newly met Forgiveness.

The idea of personified emotions is a particularly brilliant one, which the author utilizes quite well in the book. The beings can only be seen by select people, Alex being one of them. They're ephemeral, appearing and disappearing suddenly almost like spirits, taking on different appearances depending on the emotion (Lust is portrayed as female, Revenge as male for example). Every time they appear it makes your spine tingle, they're described so well.

Alex is a hard character to like. She's prickly, and intentionally hurts those around her. In that sense she's realistic though; she's been through a lot and it's understandable that someone who has lost their whole family would act like that. So though she's hard to love and root for, at least she's realistically portrayed.

Recommendation:
A great read with a creative premise.

Thoughts on the cover:
I can kind of see why how this image relates to the story, but I can think of so many other images that would work better.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Time of the Fireflies - Kimberley Griffiths Little

Title: The Time of the Fireflies
Author: Kimberley Griffiths Little
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 356 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: September 26, 2014
Finished: September 28, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

When Larissa Renaud starts receiving eerie phone calls on a disconnected old phone in her family's antique shop, she just knows she's in for a strange summer. A series of clues leads her to the muddy riverbank, where clouds of fireflies dance among the cypress knees and cattails each evening at twilight.

The fireflies are beautiful and mysterious, and they take Larissa on a magical journey through time, where she learns the secrets of her family's tragic past - deadly, curse-ridden secrets that could endanger the future of her family as she knows it. And when her mother suddenly disappears, it becomes clear that it is up to Larissa to prevent history from repeating itself, and a fatal tragedy from striking the people she loves.

Critically acclaimed author Kimberley Griffiths Little brings her signature lyricism to this thrilling tale of unexpected friendship, haunting mystery, and dangerous adventure.

Review:
I picked this up purely for the cover and the title, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book.

Larissa is twelve and summer has just begun in the Louisiana bayou. Her mother is expecting a baby in a few weeks, so Larissa is helping out her parents in their antique shop that doubles as their home. One day, after getting a mysterious phone call from one of the old phones in the shop that isn't even hooked up, Larissa finds her way to the dock where swarms of fireflies transport her to the same patch of land in 1912 where she witnesses her ancestors come under a curse that would haunt their family for generations. After several more trips back through time seeing subsequent generations of her family, Larissa discovers the source of the curse and needs to end it before it affects her mother and unborn baby sister.

I loved the atmosphere of the book, it felt like I was transported to a summer in the south. The author did a really good job with the 1912 scenes too, I was getting a total "Gone With The Wind" vibe from them (and yes I know GWTW was Civil War era), particularly the scenes with Anna and her Uncle Edgar. I especially liked how the author included southern dialect complete with French and Creole references, it added to the authenticity.

The book has some good themes too, such as giving someone a second chance like Larissa does for Alyson after the accident, and about how wrong it is to take something that doesn't belong to you.

I really appreciated the ending, it went exactly how I felt it should.

Recommendation:
A wonderful read with excellent atmosphere and setting; plus who wouldn't love a kids book about time travel via fireflies and cursed dolls?

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the illustration and the blue and purple colour scheme, very eye-pleasing.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Graduation Day - Joelle Charbonneau

Title: Graduation Day (Book Three of The Testing series)
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 19, 2014
Finished: September 25, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

With the United Commonwealth teetering on the brink of all-out civil war, this is the moment to lead that the gifted student and Testing survivor Cia Vale has trained for.

Having discovered the brutal truth behind The Testing, she has vowed to end it once and for all. As Cia plunges through layers of deception and danger, she must risk the lives of those she loves most and gamble on the loyalty of her lethal classmates.

The stakes are higher than ever - lives of promise cut short or fulfilled; a future ruled by fear or hope - in this electrifying conclusion to Joelle Charbonneau's epic Testing trilogy.

Ready or not...it's Graduation Day.

Review:
After reading The Testing and Independent Study, this quickly became my new favourite trilogy. Now that it's ended, I can safely say I was impressed by every book in the series, including this final one, even though the tone and pacing of this last book is very different from the first two.

Graduation Day picks up where the last book left off, Cia knows that the leader of the rebels who are trying to stop the Testing isn't really interested in stopping the Testing, and that the whole plot is a rouse to eliminate the opposition. So when Cia uses her connection as the President's intern to relay this news, the President charges her with a new task: to kill those who are responsible for the Testing in order to make sure she will succeed where the rebels will not. So Cia goes about formulating her plan, angsting over whether she can actually kill someone (but realizing it needs to be done or else the Testing will never end), recruiting classmates to help her, testing the loyalty of those classmates, and executing the plan, all while avoiding detection by the university officials.

The Testing and Independent Study were very action-packed books, there's the anguish of the demanding school tests and homework, and the back-breaking physical tests. Graduation Day is very much a slower paced book because it focuses on a psychological battle of wills. The ending is very much a mind-screw where Cia questions everything she had been made to believe and her father's words of trusting no one ring true.

The only thing I have issues with is the notion the book puts forth that leaders need to be prepared to make 'difficult decisions' (aka kill people) to do what ultimately needs to be done. Spoiler alerts ahead!! Although Cia only kills in self-defense and another character does the outright killing for her, the only way to stop the Testing was for Cia to kill someone (to prove they don't need the Testing to see if a candidate can make difficult decisions since Cia was recommended to fail but they passed her as a test). I'm all for presenting the idea that leaders need to make 'difficult decisions' such as putting the needs of the many over the needs of the few when it comes down to it, but to go so far as to advocate killing first over say, exposing the offending party to the public and letting the legal system have a crack at punishment, or at least trying other methods before just saying "yup, so and so needs to die", just doesn't sit right with me. So if what I wrote above doesn't sit right with your moral code either, you might want to think twice about recommending this particular instalment.

Recommendation:
Good ending to the series, but I had issues with some of the moral points raised in the book.

Thoughts on the cover:
Keeping with the theme of the previous two book covers, this one uses Raffe's symbol of the double lightning bolts with a purple colour scheme.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Beast Within - Serena Valentino

Title: The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince
Author: Serena Valentino
Publisher: Disney Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 215 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: September 18, 2014
Finished: September 19, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

The tale is as old as time: a cruel prince is transformed into a beast. A lovely maiden comes into this monster's life. He is transformed by her compassion, and the love he feels for her in return. The two live happily ever after.

But any tale, especially one as storied as Beauty and the Beast's, has been told many different times, and in many different ways. No matter which version one hears, the nagging question remains: what was it that transformed the prince into the beast we are introduced to?

This is one version, pulled from the many passed down through the ages. It's a story of vanity and arrogance, of love and hatred, of beastliness, and of course, of beauty.

Review:
Anyone who reads my reviews knows I'm a huge Beauty and the Beast fan. From the original fairy tales, to the Disney version, to creative retellings; I love them all. So of course, when I found out that Disney was making a book that explores the Beast's past as the Prince before the curse, I was all over it. The author is seemingly writing these in a series examining the untold tales of Disney villains (though the Beast doesn't exactly fit the villain motif), she previously did an instalment on the evil queen from Snow White that was well received. That is why reading this particular book was so incredibly painful; her other work received praise, which made me wonder what the heck went wrong here.

The story begins with Belle imprisoned in the Beast's castle as he reflects on his sorry state, wondering if he is even capable of the kind of love Belle showed towards her father by taking his place as prisoner. Then by a series of flashbacks we see the man the Beast once was. The Prince is friends with Gaston, and the way the author worked this in actually made it believable that they grew up together. The Prince is engaged to Circe, the youngest of a group of four witches. When Gaston realizes that Circe is the daughter of a pig farmer and informs the Prince, the engagement is cancelled. Heartbroken, Circe and her sisters curse the Prince and his household, but contrary to the film the Prince doesn't immediately change into the Beast physically. The novel examines more of the psychological changes that occur as he continues on with his 'beastly' behaviour, paranoid that what Circe cast upon him will come to fruition. As the curse slowly becomes apparent with every horrible act the Prince commits, his household changes as well. Here is another difference from the film: where servants turn into household objects that everyone else can still see and interact with, the Prince sees them merely as inanimate objects, leaving him incredibly isolated. The ghastly statues in the castle seen in the film, while harmless to everyone else, actually come alive to torment the Prince. These are details that I actually enjoyed, and if the rest of book had simply kept up with these I would've had a different impression.

The writing is poor. The word 'butt-chinned' is used to describe Gaston; I'm shocked that appeared in a formal novel, especially one set in Romance-era France where a contemporary word like that wouldn't be used. The plot is disjointed and half the time I couldn't tell what the author was trying to focus on. First there's the Beast agonizing over Belle, then backstory on the Prince and Circe with lots of Gaston, then a lot of focus on Circe's sisters trying to sabotage everything between the Prince and the annoying Princess Tulip, then talk of Ursula (obviously the focus of the next book), and then bam back to the Beast and Belle falling in love and breaking the curse. Belle is not given much focus at all, which is fine if the book only examined the Beast's story, but then to talk about how the curse is broken without Belle's character development is misguided. There are inconsistencies between the book and the film that don't make sense. If Gaston and the Prince were friends, does he not recognize the castle he spent so much time in? How does Belle attend the Prince's ball at the castle pre-curse and not put two and two together later on when she's back there? If the Prince was cursed around 11-ish according to the film, then why is he seen pre-curse as a late teen trying to woo all the ladies?

Recommendation:
Overall a disappointment, which is sad since I saw potential here.

Thoughts on the cover:
A very cool thing they did was to put the Prince's face on the actual cover underneath the Beast's on the dust jacket.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Queen of the Tearling - Erika Johansen

Title: The Queen of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 434 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy, Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 10, 2014
Finished: September 17, 2014

Summary:
From the inside  cover:

An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut - the first novel in a trilogy.

Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom's haunted past...or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.

Long ago, Kelsea's forefathers sailed away from a decaying world to establish a new land free of modern technology. Three hundred years later, this feudal society had divided into three fearful nations who pay duties to a fourth: the powerful Mortmesne, ruled by the cunning Red Queen. Now, on Kelsea's nineteenth birthday, the tattered remnants of the Queen's Guard - loyal soldiers who protect the throne - have appeared to escort the princess on a perilous journey to the capital to ascend to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling.

Though born of royal blood and in possession of the Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea has never felt more uncertain of her ability to rule. But the shocking evil she discovers in the heart of her realm will precipitate an act of immense daring, throwing the entire kingdom into turmoil - and unleashing the Red Queen's vengeance. A cabal of enemies with an array of deadly weapons, from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic, plots to destroy her. but Kelsea is growing in strength, her steely resolve earning her loyal allies, including the Queen's Guard, led by the enigmatic Lazarus, and the intriguing outlaw known simply as "the Fetch."

Kelsea's quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun. Riddled with mysteries, betrayals, and treacherous battles, Kelsea's journey is a trial by fire that will either forge a legend...or destroy her.

Review:
This book received oh so much hype, mainly due to its kick-butt heroine, so I knew I had to check it out. There were a few things that bugged me, but overall the hype is well-deserved.

First off, I liked how the world-building was set up as a fantasy, but not quite. The founders of the Tear and the surrounding lands (collectively called New Europe) originally fled from our modern-day North America and Europe, escaping decimated lands. So this book is actually set in the future and meets a lot of the criteria of a dystopian novel as well as a fantasy. William Tear felt his society's downfall was due to technology, so he founded the Tearling without the use of technology. Unfortunately, that also meant the Tearling had a lack of trained medical professionals as well, and combined with the influence of God's Church (a thinly veiled reference to Catholicism) and the lack of mandatory education, the Tearling is an overly poor, illiterate, feudal society.

This is the world Kelsea finds herself inheriting. After being sent away as an infant and raised by Barty and Carlin Glynn in a remote cabin in the woods, Kelsea receives a balanced education and develops into a resourceful young woman quite the opposite of her late mother. She finds the Queen's Guards waiting to escort her back to the Keep on her nineteenth birthday, but most suspect she will be assassinated before she even gets there.

Kelsea is a great female protagonist: she's not drop-dead pretty or super skinny, she can wield a knife to defend herself (granted her weaponry skills can use some improvement), she sticks to her own moral code, she's a book nerd with an awesome library, and she's quite witty. The only thing that doesn't quite make sense to me is how amazingly well she adjusts to society after being exposed to only two people growing up. I know she read a lot and Barty and Carlin had different personalities, but there's no way she could seamlessly integrate the way she does, there would have to be bumps along the way...

I do appreciate the allusions to the consequences of a society that values religion above education.  God's Church in the Tearling is a powerful influence that forbids contraceptives and doesn't say anything against the degradation of the education system or the immorality of the monthly caravans of Tear citizens sold as slaves to Mortmesne. Printing presses aren't used, so all books from the pre-Crossing era are rare. One of the most touching scenes for me was when Kelsea retrieves all Carlin's books from the cabin and fills her mother's empty bookshelves in the Keep. The children of Kelsea's female workers and her guards are all sitting around reading, and Kelsea gets the inspiration to create libraries again. And props to the author for references to Tolkien and Harry Potter in Kelsea's library.

Recommendation:
Excellent start to what seems like a great new series. Will definitely be picking up the subsequent books.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the black and gold colour scheme, other than that it looks like your typical fantasy cover with your token castle.