Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Solitaire - Alice Oseman

Title: Solitaire
Author: Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 357 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: May 25, 2015
Finished: May 26, 2015

From the inside cover:

My name is Victoria Spring. Sometimes I hate people. This is probably very bad for my mental health.

Tori has friends. She has brothers. She has parents. Sometimes she can be bothered to talk to them. Most of the time, though, she would prefer not to have to deal with other people.

Until the day she follows a trail of Post-its from her locker to a deserted computer lab, where she finds a message from a mysterious group called Solitaire. It's also where she meets Michael Holden. Irrepressibly cheerful, weird, and determined to be her friend, Michael is everything Tori normally hates.

And that's it. That's where it starts.

Soon Solitaire has launched a series of pranks across the school. For once, Tori feels connected, like someone is on her wavelength - making jokes about her favourite movies, blasting her favourite song on repeat over the intercom. Then Solitaire's pranks start to go too far, and no one else seems to be concerned. Tori doesn't like getting involved. But this time,the idea of doing nothing is even worse.

Solitaire is a novel about finding friends, finding yourself, and discovering that one person can change everything.

This is a coming of age novel that sparked my interest when I read the blurb a while ago. What really stood out was not only that this was a debut novel, but that the author wrote this while still a teenager herself.

Tori is a fairly normal sixteen-year-old girl, but a bit of a downer. She's caustic, pessimistic, apathetic, and critical of practically everyone. She hates reading but enjoys movies, blogging, and her younger brothers. One day while trying to escape a conversation with her friends about Harry Potter fandom, Tori follows a trail of post-it notes to an old computer lab where she uncovers an empty blog called Solitaire, while at the same time meeting Michael Holden, who is odd, spontaneous, sweet, and everything Tori is not. As Tori and Michael get to know each other, Solitaire begins staging pranks around the school that seem to relate to Tori and her interests, like photoshopping the headmaster's head onto a Star Wars character on screen during an assembly, and playing Madonna's Material Girl over and over again on the intercom. Soon the pranks turn a bit darker, like encouraging a group of students to get revenge on the homophobic bully who beat up Tori's younger brother, Charlie. When several students including Tori are hurt during a Solitaire gathering gone wrong, she decides to get to the bottom of who or what Solitaire is.

Though Solitaire as a group takes up a good chunk of the plot and conflict within the book, this is largely a character-driven novel. Tori, though not the most likeable character, is by far the most realistic. I feel like Tori could be any one of my students, and I'm pretty sure a lot of my students could pass for Tori any day of the week. Michael is just irksome in the sweetest way, and I feel his character was very well done. I like how the author even had a bit of a focus on Charlie and his battle with mental illness, an eating disorder, and suicide, while also being gay (yay for more LGBTQ characters in YA). Also, I have to give the author credit for the lovely geeky references throughout the book: Harry Potter, Sherlock, Dr. Who, plus she managed to work in Beauty and the Best to boot (she included all my favourites), and managed to insult Pride and Prejudice (though I'm an English teacher and a literature major it's well established that I dislike Jane Austen's works).

A wonderfully realistic look at an apathetic teenager and what it takes to get her to wake up to those around her. If you can tolerate Tori as a character, you'll be in for a great ride.

Thoughts on the cover:
The version I have is okay, but I'm more fond of the other covers I've seen circulating online.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Heir - Kiera Cass

Title: The Heir (Book 4 in The Selection series)
Author: Kiera Cass
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: May 22, 2015
Finished: May 23, 2015

From the inside cover:

Princess Eadlyn has grown up hearing endless stories about how her mother and father met. Twenty years ago, America Singer entered the Selection and won the heart of Prince Maxon - and they lived happily ever after. Eadlyn has always found their fairy-tale story romantic, but she has no interest in trying to repeat it. If it were up to her, she'd put of marriage for as long as possible.

But a princess' life is never entirely her own, and Eadlyn can't escape her very own Selection - no matter how fervently she protests.

Eadlyn doesn't expect her story to end in romance. But as the competition begins, one entry may just capture Eadlyn's heart, showing her all the possibilities that lie in front of her...and proving that finding her own happily ever after isn't as impossible as she's always thought.

I have to admit I had the fangirl squeals when I finally had this in my hands, very few series manage to cause me to revert to a teenage girl in ecstatic anticipation. I first discovered this series last year and even succeeded in making several other grown women sing its praises. The SelectionThe Elite, and The One made up the first arc of this series, focusing on America Singer and her journey through the Selection to become Maxon's queen. I had thought the series was complete at that point and was sad to see it end, but to my surprise, the author continued it with this new instalment (with more to come thankfully).

The Heir takes us twenty years into the future in the book's universe, focusing on America and Maxon's only daughter Eadlyn, who is also the heir to the throne. Eighteen-year-old Eadlyn accepts her duties reluctantly, angry that her twin brother Ahren wasn't born first and therefore the heir, but takes them very seriously. She has a unique personality that I quite liked: she is hesitant to become involved with anyone lest the populace consider her weak, isn't quite sure anyone can be her partner and handle what she encounters everyday, and is so consumed with upholding the image of strength as the first female heir that she doesn't allow herself time to really unwind and be vulnerable to anyone. When riots over reinstating the caste system erupt over the land (America and Maxon revoked it when they ascended the throne), the royal family is at its wits end over how to potentially solve the problem. To buy themselves some time and distract the people, Maxon and America convince Eadlyn to endure a Selection, even though the process was abolished along with the caste system. Eadlyn agrees, but only on the condition that she not be forced to marry anyone if no one there strikes her fancy. Planning on simply going through the motions for the three-month process, Eadlyn doesn't realize exactly how her opinion will change as she gets to know the boys, some of which are pretty swoon-worthy.

First off, I have to give the author credit for making Eadlyn a really admirable character with a personality different from typical YA heroines. She is a person thrust into a position of power she doesn't really want because she knows she isn't necessarily the best suited for it, but does her duty and does it wonderfully well. She has to deal with sexism and harassment when she displays the hardened resolve that previous male rulers possessed but isn't necessarily warm and fuzzy like people expect a woman to be regardless of her position. And she does all this with wit and charm and determination. I love that she is the only girl with younger brothers, it's the dynamic I would've wanted had I had siblings, and Ahren, Kaden and Osten are all pretty fleshed out character-wise and are very likeable.

The Selection boys that had most of the focus in the book (Kile, Fox, Hale, Henri, Baden, Ean, and Erik, and yes I'm counting Erik) were wonderfully developed and oh so sweet, and even the ones that didn't get as much of the spotlight had their heartwarming moments. It's hard to develop a handful of characters well, let alone one or two dozen, so I have to give the author credit for doing that incredibly well.

The book of course leaves off on a massive cliffhanger, so I will be not-so-patiently waiting for next year's instalment, all the while peddling this series to anyone who hasn't yet fallen under its spell.

If you're a fan of The Selection books, you've already read this or are trying to get ahold of it. If you haven't read The Selection books yet, do it, you need a new obsession anyway.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity between America's covers and this one, highlighting Eadlyn's very different look compared to her mother.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Acquainted With Squalor - Nath Jones

Title: Acquainted with Squalor: Short Stories
Author: Nath Jones
Publisher: Life List Press, 2015 (Paperback) (Review copy is an ARC from the author)
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: May 14, 2015
Finished: May 15, 2015

From the back cover:

Acquainted with Squalor delivers astonishing power of body-and-soul. Meteors fall, and old neighbour tosses an infrared Phoenix beacon into a cup of loose  change, and a woman on the phone with a friend mentions nothing about her eviction notice. These nine stories nourish our sense of wonder and acknowledge our deepest despair. Who has the endearing audacity to call a lover "Governor General"? Who will sit down on a hot day to eat frozen blueberries on a country lawn? Nath Jones captures what it means for us to be at home and still awash in the world.

I received a copy of this from the author about a month ago, but unfortunately due to craziness at work (midterm reports and literary essays) I had to put off reading it until this week. It's unfortunate I had to put off reading it, because once I finally did, I was struck by how amazingly true-to-life and emotionally powerful these stories are.

There are nine stories included in this volume, and I definitely have my favourites. "Blindfolded on Some Old Pedestal" is quite funny, and I was amazed at Marguerite's gall towards the old woman. As a mother, "How to Cherish the Grief-Stricken" really hit home about grief and mourning the loss of a child, with the cruel twist that the children's deaths were actually caused by a parent. "Rogues" was immaculately accurate in terms of its perspective of a teenage girl dealing with her first crush and interference from her friends. As a teacher, I felt like this could have been picked out of the mind of any of the girls I've taught. "The Nightmare State of Leduc" is another story that can be uniquely appreciated by parents, this time about a husband and wife debating smashing open their young son's heirloom piggy bank in order to retrieve his mother's rings that were placed inside.

The writing style here is honest and at times, gritty. Seemingly everyday things witnessed through an intricate lens makes for an engrossing read. Normally I'm not a fan of most short stories because I feel I never quite get attached to the characters like I should to the point where I care about what happens to them; I never had that issue here. I actually ended up crying when I was reading "How to Cherish the Grief-Stricken", and found myself smiling in fond remembrance when reading "Rogues"; I found myself quite invested in the stories and the characters, which is an impressive feat in my opinion for a short story collection.

Well-written with a variety of unique voices and true-to-life scenarios, this collection has something for everyone to enjoy.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet intricate, just like the book itself.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy - Sam Maggs

Title: The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks
Author: Sam Maggs
Publisher: Quirk Books, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 207 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Nonfiction
Started: May 12, 2015
Finished: May 13, 2015

From the inside cover:

This handy little guide to the geek life is filled with everything a savvy fangirl needs to know, including:

  • How to make nerdy friends
  • How to rock awesome cosplay
  • How to write fanfic with feels
  • How to defeat internet trolls
  • How to attend your first con
And more! Plus, insightful interviews with fangirl faves, like Jane Espenson, Erin Morgenstern, Kate Beaton, Ashley Eckstein, Laura Vandervoot, Beth Revis, Kate Leth, and many others. It's good to be a geek!

My husband pre-ordered this for me for Mother's Day (brownie points for hubby) because I'm a big fangirl and have been since childhood. My main fandoms are anime/manga, YA books, and Disney; with additional minor ones like Dr. Who, Sherlock, gaming, comics etc. I actively feed the fandom amongst my students too, I got some major looks from some of them when I wished the classes a happy Star Wars Day and offered them stickers, but the geeky ones appreciated it.

My husband picked this up because the author is also the editor for The Mary Sue, a geeky pop culture site with an awesome feminist edge (plus the author is Canadian, yay!). This book is a great little introduction to fandom in general for girls and women just starting to discover what they like. The book is divided into 4 sections: general info on geek culture (the fandoms, the unique language, etc.), online fandom communities, everything about conventions, and geek girl feminism. Since I'm not a complete newbie and attended my first convention almost 15 years ago, the part of the book that really appealed to me was the chapter on feminism. Geek culture isn't the most welcoming towards women, it wasn't when I was a teenager and it still isn't now, though it is getting better. The chapter gives you the skills to critique the media you consume, like if it passes the Bechdel test, and how to call out something that's misogynistic. Plus, there is an awesome little geek girl manifesto included that is just pure awesomeness, especially the part about being the Doctor and not a companion (that always bugged me):

Buy this for every geeky female you know, especially the young and emerging ones that need some guidance.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. Plus, can I say how happy I was that the character is drawn with larger hips, thighs, and calves? 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Press Here and Mix It Up! - Herve Tullet

Title: Press Here, Mix It Up!
Author: Herve Tullet
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2011, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 56 pages each
Genre: Children's Picture Book
Started: April 5, 2015
Finished: April 5, 2015

From the back covers:

Press Here.
That's right.
Just press the yellow dot.
And turn the page.

     Watch colours splatter, mix, and transform.
All at the touch of a finger.
Follow the directions and turn the page:
Magic and fun await!

I've had my eye on these for a while now, and my daughter just received these as an Easter gift so we were finally able to add these to our library.

These books are quite interactive and fun. In Press Here, the reader is asked to press dots in primary colours to make them shift, multiply, and shake from one page to the next. In Mix It Up!, the reader is asked to mix primary coloured dots together and shake the book to create secondary colours of different shades.

These are the perfect books for young children, especially ones that would appreciate an interactive element in their stories.

Great additions to your kid's library, very whimsical books that are fun and also teach colour theory to boot.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very simple but effective, and representative of the overall style throughout the books.

Friday, March 27, 2015

My Heart and Other Black Holes - Jasmine Warga

Title: My Heart and Other Black Holes
Author: Jasmine Warga
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 302 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 26, 2015
Finished: March 27, 2015

From the inside cover:

Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There's only one problem: she's not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel's convinced she's found her solution - a teen boy with the username FrozenRobot (aka Roman), who's haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner.

Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other's broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together.

This is a gorgeously written and compulsively readable novel about the transformative power of love, heralding the arrival of an extraordinary new voice in teen fiction, Jasmine Warga.

I've been on a morbid book kick lately, so I decided to pick this up despite the cliche title. I was surprised by how beautifully written this book was, and it captured me until I put it down.

Aysel is sixteen and very depressed. Her dad is in jail for murder, she feels like she's an intruder on her mother's new family after spending most of her time with her dad after the divorce, her classmates treat her differently because of what her dad did, and she constantly thinks about what would happen if she chose to end it all. When she comes across a website with a section for those looking for suicide partners, she answers an ad from a local poster. He insists that it happen on April 7th, the day his little sister died (less than a month away), and he needs Aysel to convince his mother to allow Roman freedom from her constant supervision. Because they need to appear like they're friends simply hanging out, they spend time together. Aysel learns that Roman blames himself for his little sister's death, loves playing basketball, and is a talented artist. He learns that she loves science and physics, classical music, and even comes to appreciate Einstein because Aysel does. They connect and fall for each other, and even though they both keep reminding themselves of their pact, Aysel becomes less and less willing to follow through.

I like how the author delved into both chemical depression and situational depression. Aysel has what she describes as a black slug inside her that swallows up her happiness, and has since she was a child. Roman only became depressed after his sister's death. It shows that depression can come on suddenly, or it can be something that a person has dealt with all their live and not realize it because it's such a constant for them and they don't know anything different.

The romance between Aysel and Roman happens very gradually even though the novel takes place over the course of about a month's time. They're very sweet together and this is one teenage romance that I can actually root for and think of as a nice model for others (despite the suicide pact that brought them together).

The main theme of the novel is human connection, and what transpires from it. Both Aysel and Roman are broken people who need help, but in finding and confiding in each other, they begin to care about the other to the point where they want each other to live. Aysel sees and loves the rare joy in Roman's eyes when he plays basketball, Roman draws a portrait of Aysel to illustrate how he sees her. Aysel is so afraid of being rejected because of her father's crime, but Roman already knows about it and accepts her as she is.

You can tell the author has experience with suicide, she explains at the end that writing the book was a therapeutic process for her after the death of her friend. The passion for life and human connection comes through here in droves, and you as a reader just reacts with joy when you realize Aysel has turned that point and decides to plan for a future she didn't think she would be around for.

Although it does deal with some heavy subject matter, this book truly celebrates life. The characters seek help from each other and their families to make it through the long healing process. There are suicide hotline numbers at the back of the book for readers to peruse if needed. It's a beautiful book that grips you and doesn't let go.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the little swirl on the cover, and it has texture to seem like it was sewn on. It's a good visual representation of the metaphor of how Aysel views herself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Playlist for the Dead - Michelle Falkoff

Title: Playlist for the Dead
Author: Michelle Falkoff
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 279 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 24, 2015
Finished: March 25, 2015

From the inside cover:

Here's what Sam knows. There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, Sam's best friend, Hayden, was dead. All he left Sam was a playlist - and a note, saying that he took his own life. But what Sam doesn't know is: why?

To figure out what happened, Sam has to rely on the playlist and his own memory. But the more he listens, the more he realizes that his memory isn't as reliable as he thought. Especially when someone claiming to be Hayden starts sending him cryptic messages, and a series of violent attacks begins on the bullies who made Hayden's life hell.

Same knows he has to face up to what happened the night Hayden killed himself. But it's only by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him - including an eccentric, unpredictable girl who's got secrets too - that Sam will finally be able to piece together his best friend's story.

And maybe have a chance to change his own.

I won't lie, I picked this up because it reminded me of Thirteen Reasons Why, a book I read years ago and loved to pieces. However, Playlist for the Dead is a very different novel, even though it has a similar premise.

Whenever Sam and Hayden have a fight, Sam always caves and apologizes first. That is how Sam discovered Hayden's body after they fought at a party the night before. Hayden left Sam a list of songs that he claims in a note that Sam will understand if he just listens to it. Sam becomes obsessed with the playlist in his grief, confused over whether it was his fault Hayden killed himself because of their fight, or if it was more about Hayden's older brother Ryan and his buddies who always bullied them. When attacks begin on the "bully trifecta" as they are called, Sam feels that maybe karma has done its job. But when Sam logs onto the online game he and Hayden played, a character claiming to be Hayden says that he is responsible for it all. In Sam's desire to discover exactly what happened to Hayden and who is really attacking the bullies, he realizes that people aren't exactly what they seem, and that you never really know someone until you listen to their whole story.

I really liked how Sam was a realistic character, he was portrayed as a typical fifteen-year-old boy who just lost his best friend in a very traumatic way and is trying to figure out how to resume his life while being consumed with guilt. He didn't grieve in a stereotypical way, or in the way others in the book expected him to, it was very much his own coming to terms with Hayden and his life and those involved in it. You don't see many books that deal with the direct aftermath of a suicide, and this one touched on Sam's experience. I liked how he saw Hayden's suicide as a mystery to unravel, how it was so out of character and he had to figure out what drove Hayden to do it. But in the end, there were many factors and events that could have been the trigger, and perhaps all of them were, and Sam finally admits to himself that if everyone believes they contributed to it in equal parts then no individual person could have stopped Hayden.

I do like how the idea of revenge was included, especially in a book that includes a suicide related to bullying, and how most of the characters ended up having a beef with the bully trifecta that Sam never knew about. I really don't think Ryan and his buddies got what was coming to them despite the attacks on them, and Sam's final conversation with Ryan felt off for some reason, like Ryan's issues were somehow supposed to excuse his cruel treatment of his own brother. Maybe my empathy meter is broken, but I felt nothing for Ryan and his buddies even after hearing their side of the story. I do applaud Sam for his mature reaction at the end, though.

I really enjoyed Sam's self-discovery, what he learns about others, and how he chooses to piece himself back together after Hayden's death, which surprisingly does not include the budding romance between him and Astrid. The songs felt almost unnecessary, they don't really help with much, but perhaps that's because the songs are unfamiliar to me and I didn't look up the lyrics. The songs and all the pop culture references will date the book pretty quickly, I feel the novel could have been written with just as much impact had they not been included.

A powerful book, but it left me as a reader wanting for some reason I can't explain.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they included Sam and Astrid on the cover connected by the earbuds, and the shade of blue is pretty cool.