Friday, July 25, 2014

Big Fat Disaster - Beth Fehlbaum

Title: Big Fat Disaster
Author: Beth Fehlbaum
Publisher: Merit Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 287 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 25, 2014
Finished: July 25, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Insecure, shy, and way overweight, Colby hates the limelight as much as her pageant-pretty mom and sisters love it. It's her life: Dad's a superstar, running for office on a family values platform. Then suddenly, he ditches his marriage for a younger woman and gets caught stealing money from the campaign. Everyone hates Colby for finding out and blowing the whistle on him. From a mansion, they end up in a poor relative's trailer, where her mom's contempt swells right along with Colby's super sized jeans. Then, a cruel video of Colby half-dressed, made by her cousin Ryan, finds its way onto the Internet. Colby plans her own death. A tragic family accident intervenes, and Colby's role in it seems to paint her as a hero, but she's only a fraud. Finally, threatened with exposure, Colby must face facts about her selfish mother and her own shame. Harrowing and hopeful, proof that the truth saves us can come with a fierce and terrible price, is that rare thing, a story that is authentically new.

Review:
I'll admit, I picked this up because I had weight issues as a kid and have been waiting for a decent book featuring an overweight protagonist that doesn't simply focus on their weight. Although weight is a big part of Colby's story, it delves into so much more.

While Colby's dad is under investigation by the FBI for misappropriating campaign funds, she discovers a photo of her father and his mistress in his office. When she confronts him about it in front of her mother, her life begins to unravel. Her dad leaves, their house is seized and they are evicted, forced to move in with family in the middle of nowhere, taunted and bullied at the new school, and when she finds out her cousin videotaped her while she was getting dressed and that the video got on the internet, and that her mother blames her for it, Colby just wants it all to end.

A lot of people have criticized the book, saying the characters and situations are unrealistic: Colby's mom is too mean and callous, none of her classmates stand up for her, etc. Having read the book in one sitting because it was so engaging and incredibly realistic, I can guarantee you that for a girl with weight issues, these scenarios are definitely in the realm of possibility. That's why it's important that books like this exist, because there are kids out there with the unsupportive family too deep in their own psychological issues that they spout off damaging crap to their own kid, with peers at school that will look at their body and laugh. Even if they don't have weight issues, there are kids that have witnessed events like Ryan did (football players raping a girl while drunk) and do the right thing in response but are confronted by the larger public that tries to beat them into submission because they dared to put things out in the open and that makes people uncomfortable.

The only thing that bugged me a little was Colby's treatment at the end, I didn't think that was realistic. After multiple suicide attempts, she should've been in a recovery facility, and having a turn-around after only two or three sessions just won't happen, but I do appreciate that the author showed Colby improving after therapy, and that the doctor called everyone else out on their really disgusting treatment of Colby, but also makes her accountable for her choices.

With that being said, there are tons of trigger-worthy issues in this book: rape, bullying, suicide, domestic violence, verbal abuse, toxic family/individuals, you name it. This isn't the kind of book you should read if you're in a bad place, it takes a lot to push me over the edge and I was bawling like a baby while reading it. But if you're in a good place, there's a lot to learn from this book.

Recommendation:
A really touching book that's incredibly hard to read, but if you can tough it out there's a great message here.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how you can tell the cover model is heavier but her body isn't shown. The cupcake is a nice touch considering Colby's love-hate relationship with cakes at her aunt's bakery.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Deep Blue - Jennifer Donnelly

Title: Deep Blue
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Disney Hyperion, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 14, 2014
Finished: July 21, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Serafina, daughter of Isabella, Queen of Miromara, has been raised with the expectation - and burden - that she will someday become ruler of the oldest civilization of the merfolk. On the eve of the Dokimi ceremony, which will determine if she is worthy of the crown, Sera is haunted by a strange dream that foretells the return of an ancient evil. But her nightmare is forgotten the next day as she diligently practices her songspell; eagerly anticipates a reunion with her best friend, Neela; and anxiously worries about Mahdi, the crown prince of Matali, and whether his feelings toward her and their future betrothal have changed. Most of all, she worries about not living up to her mother's hopes.

The Dokimi proceeds, a dazzling display of majesty and might, until a shocking turn of events interrupts it: an assassin's arrow wounds Isabella. The realm falls into chaos, and Serafina's darkest premonitions are confirmed. Now she and Neela must embark on a quest to find the assassin's master and prevent a war between the mer nations. Their search will lead them to other mermaid heroines scattered across the six seas. Together they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood as the uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world's very existence.

Review:
I won't lie, I saw mermaids and I thought, "this baby's mine!" I also read Revolution by this author years ago and loved it to pieces, so I knew I'd snap up whatever she wrote in the future.

Serafina is the princess of Miromara, the mer kingdom located in the Mediterranean sea (their castle is in Cerulea specifically, off the coast of Venice, Italy). Now that's she's sixteen and come of age, she will not only be betrothed, but will go through the formal ceremony where she is deemed worthy of her bloodline and displays her magic. Sera has major issues with Queen Isabella; she wants her to act more like her mother rather than the queen, and has doubts that she will ever measure up to her mother's reputation. After the attack on the Dokimi and Cerulea itself, everyone flees the city. Serafina swims off with Neela to try to find a safe zone to escape the attackers, separated from everyone else. Along the way they realize they've both been having the same prophetic dreams about the Iele, (mer witches) that are normally told as stories to keep children in line.  The prophecy outlines that there will be 6 mermaids with different talents and skills that need to be united to find the talismans from each of the 6 historical rulers in order to save everyone (typical prophecy stuff). So off they go to find the rest of the group and the journey motif begins...

In terms of what I liked...

First off, the merfolk world created here is immense and extremely detailed. Thankfully there's a glossary in the back 'cause you'll need it. The beginning is one big info dump, but it works in quite well and doesn't feel like an info dump. It'll take a while to wrap your head around all the new terminology, and the water/ocean puns do grate a little after a while, but it's all very well put together and extremely creative. It's closer to our culture than I expected though, the slang is similar (just with water/ocean puns), and the way the characters talk to each other is like stepping foot into a high school.

Second, the whole book (and I'm assuming the series in general) is full of strong female characters that make nice, healthy friendships with one another (no frenemies, yay!). Isabella, though not the most ideal mom from what we see of her in the beginning, is an amazing example of a good leader who doesn't back down in the face of danger but isn't impulsive to the point of stupidity either. Serafina, though unsure of herself due to her mom-complex, is a girl that knows what's right and what she should do (even though she's scared silly to actually do it), and has the makings of a great queen. Neela is a great friend to Sera, and her ability to gush over candy and call out the boys on their crappy behaviour is awesome. The mer society is also matriarchal rather than patriarchal, everything is inherited through the mother, and through their rules of succession only a princess can rule the kingdom.

Third, yay diversity! There are characters of European, Indian, Chinese, and middle-eastern backgrounds.

Fourth, the romance was light and not a huge feature in the book. It's established that Sera likes Mahdi and that he liked her once upon a time, but his current playboy behaviour has put a damper on things.

Okay, now on to what I'm not nuts about...

First, there's not enough character development. Aside from Serafina we don't really get any insight into any other character. The girls are strong and the whole merworld has feminist leanings, but the people in it aren't developed enough to really be believable, they're more tropes right now.

Second, I don't know if it's just me, but the book made me feel like the author wrote this for Disney purely as a launch to a new movie or mini-series or something. The story and the plot kind of fell flat a bit after the Dokimi, and the dialogue between characters makes this feel sillier than I assumed it would be. I expected a more mature and darker story and I'm just not feeling it at this point, hopefully the subsequent books will fulfill this for me.

Recommendation:
Wonderful take on the mermaid tale for older readers, incredibly creative and feminist story.

Thoughts on the cover:
Gorgeous, this whole book is pure eye candy. The cover, the maps on the inside covers, the blue font and header at the top of each chapter, I love it all.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Prisoner of Night and Fog - Anne Blankman

Title: Prisoner of Night and Fog
Author: Anne Blankman
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 398 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: July 7, 2014
Finished: July 12, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Muller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her Uncle Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf's, and Gretchen is his favourite, his pet.

Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.

Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can't stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can't help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she's been taught to believe about Jews.

As Gretchen investigates the very people she's always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth - even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

From debut author Anne Blankman comes this harrowing and evocative story about an ordinary girl faced with the extraordinary decision to give up everything she's ever believed...and to trust her own heart instead.

Review:
I'm a historical fiction buff, especially stories from the WWII era, and the plot was just too unique to pass up.

The story takes place in 1931, a short time before Hitler is elected to power, but the National Socialist Party is ever popular, and Hitler is admired like a celebrity. Gretchen and her family were looked after by "Uncle Dolf" after her father died after taking the hit meant for Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 when the party was in its infancy. Now seventeen, Gretchen is the party's little doll: blonde, innocent, smiling for photo ops for the newspapers and magazines. Though she nods her head when Hitler and her older brother spout the Nazi doctrine, she doesn't truly believe it in her heart, and those beliefs are further challenged when she meets Daniel who tells her his theories on her father's death. The two of them travel through Munich, talking to witnesses of the event, uncovering documents from the Great War, and piecing together the events that have since been covered up.

Looking at the rise of the Nazi party from the point of view of a young girl intimately connected to it is an incredibly interesting way to approach it. Hitler is portrayed as a kindly uncle, charming and attentive, and Gretchen doesn't begin to see him any differently until about half-way through the book. The author has definitely done her research, with three pages of bibliography sources at the end of the book. I also appreciated the author's note at the end that explains exactly which characters and events are fictional and which ones are from real history. This is actually the first book in a series, so I will definitely be picking up the subsequent instalments.

Recommendation:
Wonderfully unique take on Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. The way the model's face is photographed, it looks as if she's looking over her shoulder, fearing she's being followed, which fits the feel of the novel. The colours in the image above are much more vibrant than the actual cover was, the actual cover is more muted, giving the feel that the image is being looked at through a fog.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The World Outside - Eva Wiseman

Title: The World Outside
Author: Eva Wiseman
Publisher: Tundra Books, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 232 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: July 5, 2014
Finished: July 6, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Seventeen-year-old Chanie Altman lives the sheltered life of a Lubavitcher Hasidic girl in Crown Heights, New York. Like other girls in her tight-knit, religious community, she is expected to attend a seminary and to marry as soon as she graduates from high school. But Chanie has a beautiful voice and dreams of becoming a famous singer: a career forbidden to a Hasidic girl. When she meets David, he exposes her to a world of possibility outside her fundamentalist community.

But it's August 1991 and simmering racial tensions explode into riots in Crown Heights. A tragedy occurs, and the Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews come under siege.

Will Chanie choose to stay in the world she has always known and lead a prescribed life, or will she leave it behind to follow her dreams?

Review:
This title intrigued me because even though I consider myself pretty well-versed in historical events, I had never heard of the Crown Heights Riots; I would have been eight years old when they happened.

Chanie is Jewish, from the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, living in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Her religion is very strict and conservative: females must be fully covered, anything secular is discouraged, and boys almost solely study religious texts to the exclusion of everything else to the point where they are nearly illiterate in the English language. Chanie is about to graduate from her girls high school where it is automatically assumed that she will go on to the seminary and then marriage. When she meets David as she and her friends are proselytizing at the mall, he is drawn to the boy and his efforts to get to know her. He encourages her gift of singing, even convincing her to apply to Julliard for a scholarship. Chanie balks tradition in other ways too: she makes friends with a black girl against her mother's wishes, goes to the public library to look up information on the Rigoletto opera, and meets with David in secret. As the events of the riots break out in August, Chanie and her family are caught up in it. There are deaths in her family which change her outlook on things. When she is actually accepted into Julliard, she is faced with a decision: does she go against her religion to pursue her great talents, or does she cling to the life she's always known?

I loved the descriptions of the Hasidic lifestyle. I have read novels that deal with the Hasidic sect before, but the particular strictness of it always amazes me. The regulations that Chanie must follow, particularly restrictive for girls, are things I could never do, especially if I knew that things could be different. The ending was definitely unique, but slightly disappointing. All signs were pointing to one outcome, but then you get a totally different result, it almost feels like the author had an agenda the whole time and copped out at the last minute. It doesn't take away from the overall enjoyment of the book, but it does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Recommendation:
The ending was disappointing, but the rest of the book was quite enjoyable; an informing read.

Thoughts on the cover:
The Star of David alludes to the religious aspect of the book, and I'm assuming the building must be recognizable to most people, but it means nothing to me. Putting everything together with what I'm assuming is Chanie's neck and chest is an interesting take on it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The One - Kiera Cass

Title: The One (Book 3 of The Selection series)
Author: Kiera Cass
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: June 26, 2014
Finished: June 29, 2014

Summary:
From Goodreads.com:

The Selection changed the lives of thirty-five girls forever. Now, only one will claim Prince Maxon's heart.

For the four girls who remain at the palace, the friendships they've formed, rivalries they've struggled with, and dangers they've faced  have bound them to each other for the rest of their lives.

Now, the time has come for one winner to be chosen.

America never dreamed she would find herself anywhere close to the crown - or to Prince Maxon's heart. But as the competition approaches its end and the threats the palace walls grow more vicious, America realizes just how much she stands to lose - and how hard she'll have to fight for the future she wants.

Review:
After blazing through The Selection and The Elite, I was looking forward to the end of the series but at the same time not wanting it to end. There are novella prequels about Maxon and Aspen that are out that I haven't read yet, so I'll have to track those down to get my fix.

The One wraps things up quite nicely. America finally makes up her mind about who she wants (my only beef with this series was America's endless waffling, made me want to smack her), a certain character gets fleshed out and therefore redeemed, there's some great action scenes with the rebels, and some uber cute romantic scenes. The ending was a little abrupt, makes it seem like there needs to be another book to finish things off, but who knows, maybe the author will write a sequel series.

Recommendation:
A great ending to a lovely series, I will miss it.

Thoughts on the cover:
These covers are simply gorgeous, I love the white wedding theme going on.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hidden - Loic Dauvillier

Title: Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust
Author: Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, Greg Salsedo, Alexis Siegel
Publisher: First Second, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 76 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction
Started: June 25, 2014
Finished: June 25, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Like every grandmother, Dounia was once a little girl herself.

Tonight, she's finally ready to tell her granddaughter a secret about her childhood - something she never even told her son.

Tonight, Dounia is ready to share her memories of Paris in 1942. Memories of wearing a Star of David, of living in fear, of the kindness of strangers.

Memories of being hidden.

Review:
The thing I find most fascinating about Holocaust narratives is that you get a different perspective depending on the age of the person and which country they lived in. There are lots of similarities that unite all these various stories together, but a child in France that survived by being in hiding will have a completely different experience than one that survived by living in the forest in eastern Europe, same with a child from Germany or Poland that was actually sent to a concentration camp.

Dounia's young granddaughter Elsa is staying overnight, and when she wakes up in the middle of the night to find her grandmother up as well, she urges Dounia to share the reason why she can't sleep. Dounia then proceeds to tell Elsa of her childhood in France after the German occupation. She remembers the one day everything changes, when her father tells her they need to wear "sheriff's stars, when friends suddenly disappear, and when she is ostracized at school. Soon, soldiers come looking for her. Her parents hide her in a false bottom in a wardrobe, never to return for her. A kindly neighbour couple takes her in, but the husband is soon taken away for keeping Dounia hidden. Now on the run, the wife finds a farm to take Dounia to, arranged by the Resistance. After years in hiding, some are reunited and some are not. Back to the present, Elsa's father confides in his mother that he now knows the story courtesy of his daughter, and that he understands why his mother never told him, but that he's proud she was able to share it with Elsa.

This is a short graphic novel, a very quick read, but very powerful. There isn't anything overly violent in this book (nothing like Schindler's List kind of disturbing), but it does discuss the treatment of Jewish people and anti-Semitism, and that might be a lot for a particularly sensitive young reader to process, so proceed with caution depending on age and maturity of the reader. I'd say most kids over age 10 or so should be able to handle the content with no issues. I'd even go as far as to say that this is a good introduction to Holocaust narratives for a chid: it's short, in graphic novel format, and told from an innocent child's perspective (therefore it's not too heavy like more mature narratives).

Recommendation:
Short but excellent graphic portrayal of a child's experience of the Holocaust in France.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the huge splash of blue, especially this particular shade of baby blue, with Dounia in the corner with her black hair and red coat, the colours really mesh well.

Lost Girl Found - Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca

Title: Lost Girl Found
Author: Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 212 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
Started: June 24, 2014
Finished: June 25, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

For Poni, life in her small village in southern Sudan is simple and complicated at the same time. Stay in school. Beat up any boy who tries to show attention. Watch out for the dangers in the river.

But then the war comes. And when soldiers arrive in her village, and bombs begin to rain from the sky, there is only one thing for Poni to do. Run. Run for her life.

Poni does run from the bombs, and then she is walking - a long and dusty trek across the east African countryside with thousands of refugees. Along the way, many die from starvation, land mines, wild animals, and despair, but Poni does not, driven by sheer will to survive and the hope that, against all odds, she can one day continue with her education.

Review:
I didn't realize this was a female perspective of the famous Lost Boys of Sudan until I got really into the book. I've read new stories and seen documentaries of young boys and men that were resettled in North America after surviving wars and conflict in their home countries, and I always wondered about the girls, but no one ever focused on them. This book is based off of the experiences of multiple Sudanese women and girls and portrayed as Poni. We first meet her as a 12-13-year-old girl living in south Sudan, trying to avoid an early marriage by focusing on her studies and literally beating up any boy who shows and interest in her to make them look elsewhere. When war arrives and bombs drop, Poni is separated from her parents and siblings, and she follows the other refugees to the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. She manages to survive even there, but when her foster mother threatens to marry her off, Poni escapes to Nairobi when rumours reach her of a nun who helps girls go to school.

The main thing that stands out here is the stark portrayal of gender issues in countries such as these. Early on in the book there's a scene where Poni's twelve-year-old friend is clinging to a tree and ripped from it because she doesn't want to be married off. Less than a year later, that same friend has died in childbirth, which reinforces Poni's resolve to avoid marriage at all costs. There's a scene in the camps where a girl is singled out from a group and raped, and Poni remarks on how she'll be blamed for it and will be shunned because no one will want her. The importance of education is also shown. Poni's mother tells her that her only chance to have a decent life is to continue her schooling, to the point where Poni must make a heart-breaking decision at the end of the book relating to it.

There's a few really good author's notes and a list of further resources (mostly on the Lost Boys though) at the end of the book for people wanting to research further. I love books like these because it makes our kids aware of issues going on outside of their own country and reinforces how fortunate they are.

Recommendation:
A short but powerful read on the experiences of girls in the Sudan civil war.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's appropriate but doesn't incite much of a reaction.