Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates - Caroline Carlson

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

From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

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

From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns Stories - Rae Carson

Title: The Girl of Fire and Thorns Stories
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2014
Length: 253 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 15, 2014
Finished: November 17, 2014

From the back of the book:

Get swept away in the world of Rae Carson's acclaimed, epic, New York Times best-selling Girl of Fire and Thorns series with these three novellas. Before Hector was Commander of the Royal Guard and Elisa's true love, he was a young new recruit. In The King's Guard, watch him prove himself - and uncover a secret that he must keep forever. In The Shadow Cats, discover how Elisa's rivalry with her older sister looks from Alodia's point of view, and why Alodia agrees to marry her sister off to King Alejandro. And in The Shattered Mountain, learn how Mara survived her village's destruction before she became Elisa's best friend and handmaiden.

A must-have for every fan of Rae Carson's stunning fantasy trilogy!

After falling in love with The Girl of Fire and ThornsThe Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom, I was positively giddy when I found out there were prequel side-stories. Granted, these novellas were released in between the three books strictly for e-readers (and I hate my stupid e-reader so until I spring for an iPad I'm not touching e-books), so I never got to read them until now when they were bundled in printed format.

There are three stories in this collection. One story focuses on Alodia (with Elisa as a secondary character), another on Hector as a teenager, and the other on Mara. I'll admit, the only reason I wanted to read this was because of Hector's story, he's my favourite character after Elisa. And I was not disappointed. I can't give away much for fear of spoilers, but if you're a fan of the trilogy you'll want to pick this up for the extra insight into the characters.

If you're a fan of the original trilogy, give this a read (if only for Hector's story, it's a good one).

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity from the trilogy's covers with the Godstone against the background.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time - Brigid Schulte

Title: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time
Author: Brigid Schulte
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: October 18, 2014
Finished: October 28, 2014

From the inside cover:

Overwhelmed is a book about time pressure and modern life. And it comes at the perfect moment: Amid debates about the toll of conflicting demands on parents and our addiction to the daily grind, Overwhelmed is just what we need to address our questions about work, love, and play. Brigid Schulte, an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post and a harried mother of two, began her journey to rediscover leisure when she realized her life was becoming "like the the dream I keep having about trying to run a race wearing ski boots." She goes from the depths of the "time confetti" of her days to an understanding of what the ancient Greeks knew was the point of living a good life: having time to refresh the soul in leisure. What Schulte finds is illuminating, perplexing, and maddening, but ultimately hopeful.

Taking the baton from such pathbreakers as Barbara Ehrenreich, Arlie Hochchild's The Second Shift, and Juliet Schor's The Overwhelmed American, Schulte details not only the intensifying pressures on women, and increasingly on men, but also how feeling overwhelmed is affecting our health and even the size of our brains. At times, the author becomes her own subject, as when she sits, jet-lagged and hungry, in a Paris auditorium crammed with scholars and dozes off - until a speaker lamenting the toll of "role overload" on working parents snaps her awake.

She visits Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, the renowned anthropologist, who presents hard evidence that women are not "wired" for child care - so a "natural" family arrangement might actually include heavy involvement on the father's part. It's a model that's taken root not only among the hunter-gatherer tribes in the Kalahari Desert the Hrdy has studied, but also in Denmark, the world's happiest country, where it's possible to work short, productive, flexible hours and still be successful, committed workers and attentive parents - and have time for oneself.

Overwhelmed is both a map of the stresses that have ripped our leisure to shreds and a blueprint for how to put the pieces back together. What Schulte offers us is a revelatory, at times hilarious, and at heart optimistic view of how we can begin to find time for the things that matter most and live more fulfilled lives.

When I first saw this available at my library, I scooped it up as soon as I realized what it was about. Like most mothers, I struggle to balance full-time work, my family, and running a household. Growing up, I saw what overwhelmed looked like (my mother was the poster child for it), and resolved to not fall into the same traps when I had children. Though I do make time for myself through reading, other forms of leisure and especially play are hard for me to accomplish, especially with a husband who works many hours. I know most of my female friends that are married with children feel the same, and I figured there must be some reason why the majority of mothers feel this way, and it turns out there is.

The author divides her book into two main parts: describing how leisure time has eroded in the past 50-60 years and why people feel so overwhelmed by "role  overload", and the second with how to possibly address this problem in three areas: work, love, and play. The second section examines flex time policies, family leave, and groups that encourage women to play in different areas all over the world.

This was an eye-opening book that all women, particularly mothers, should read. In fact, their husbands should read it too since men are feeling the pressure nowadays as well. Traditionally, men fell victim to the "perfect worker" stereotype of the person locked at the desk for hours on end, first to get there and the last to leave. When women started working, since most ended up with jobs that didn't make enough to make the cost of child care worth it, many ended up either staying home or taking jobs that specifically allowed them to work around their children's care schedule. With men focusing more on working hard, long hours so as not to go against North American society's view of the perfect worker, women were left to balance not only their own work, but the household responsibilities and that of their children as well. With it not being as socially acceptable for men to take family leave after the birth of their children, they become less comfortable with caring for them, leaving those duties to their wives. Since society has protected men's leisure time through sports and social outings but in a strange way has stigmatized women who are not accomplishing something at all hours, women feel increasingly guilty wen taking time for themselves if they aren't crossing off something on the never-ending to-do list.

The chapters on Denmark were enlightening. Men are obligated to take family leave just like women, offices automatically close by 4:30-5pm, and all stores close close to 7pm. Plus, working harder rather than smarter is frowned upon, if you stay at an office in Denmark till past 5pm, you'll be the only one there. It's obviously a two-fold problem: our policies do not encourage a proper work-life balance, and our culture encourages the perfect worker stereotype because we assume that working longer means working better, when in fact studies show people work better in shorter spans with frequent breaks.

All people, especially parents, should read this book. Hopefully this will encourage readers to advocate for flexible policies at your workplaces in order for everyone to benefit.

Thoughts on the cover:
It looks like my to-do list, I like it.

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

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.

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.

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

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!

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.

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

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.

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.

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.