Friday, August 28, 2015

Nimona - Noelle Stevenson

Title: Nimona
Author: Noelle Stevenson
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 266 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Started: August 25, 2015
Finished: August 27, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: to prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are. Explosions will be involved. Science and Sharks will be too. But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.

Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson based on her award-winning web comic.

Review:
I heard nothing but good things about this graphic novel so I decided to pick it up. After reading it, this is a graphic novel I will be adding to my classroom collection for its humour, art style, feminist undertones, LGBTQ hints, and general awesomeness.



Nimona inhabits a medieval-inspired fantasy universe where there are dragons and knights, but surprisingly high-tech. She wants to become sidekick to Ballister Blackheart, the realm's resident villain who holds a grudge against Sir Goldenloin as the cause of the loss of his right arm (replaced by a mechanical one). Blackheart still holds to certain morals however (he used to be a knight in training with Goldenloin), and tries his best to keep Nimona's intensity in check. When the Institution realizes that Nimona is a shapeshifter, they order her death. Goldenloin has a bit of a conscience though, and only agrees to kill Nimona if the Institution will spare Blackheart. Throughout the comic, Goldenloin and Blackheart spar physically and emotionally (hence the LGBTQ hints) and try to uncover Nimona's backstory to figure out exactly what she is.

I love the fact that Nimona can take any form she wants (including dinosaurs and dragons) and chooses to take the human form of a chubby redhead, yay for body diversity! And I love that Nimona still has a very specific identity and personality regardless of the form her body takes, Nimona is still Nimona no matter what she looks like (how's that for body acceptance?) The story starts off goofy and sarcastic and cool and slowly morphs into a story with much deeper, darker themes. I also like the little bonus comics and sketches at the back of the book, including one of Blackheart and Goldenloin as kids at Christmas and early character development sketches.

Recommendation:
An amazing story with great art and humour, and an awesome female protagonist. Plus, sharks and dragons, you need to read this.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it, especially with the green tones. I like how Nimona is in quasi-dragon form here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Book of Spirits and Thieves - Morgan Rhodes

Title: A Book of Spirits and Thieves
Author: Morgan Rhodes
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 359 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 14, 2015
Finished: August 25, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Worlds collide in this suspenseful, page-turning Falling Kingdoms spin-off series, which explores a whole new side of Mytica - and an even darker version of its magic.

Crystal Hatcher and her little sister, Becca, are working in the Speckled Muse, their mother's downtown Toronto bookshop, when an unexpected parcel arrives. Inside is an object that will change their lives forever: a large leather-bound book written in an unrecognizable language. When Becca opens it, she falls into a deep coma that sends her spirit to another world.

Meanwhile, on the ritzier side of town, Farrell Grayson parties away his parents' fortune. When the mysterious leader of a powerful secret society invites him to join his inner circle, Farrell seizes the chance to prove his worth - no matter how much he has to sacrifice.

Worlds away in Mytica, merciless goddess Valoria hunts for the elusive treasure that will make her ruler not only of her realm, but of all the unseen worlds that lie beyond it. But Valoria's plans are thwarted when Maddox Corso, a commoner, meets a pretty stranger from a faraway land who desperately needs his help. Her name is Becca Hatcher, and when Maddox realizes he's the only one who can see her, their meeting feels like much more than chance.

Review:
I haven't read the author's Falling Kingdoms series, the one that this book (the first in a new series) is based on, so keep in mind I have no background of the Falling Kingdoms universe.

The book contains three different narratives across two universes: Crystal and Farrell in modern-day Toronto, and Maddox in the high fantasy realm of Mytica. Crystal and Becca work in the Speckled Muse bookshop that has been in their family for generations, and when their Aunt Jackie sends the store a package with a mysterious book in it, it soon sends Becca into a coma while having no affect on Crystal. Farrell and his wealthy family are involved in a secret society lead by Markus King, a strange man with god-like powers that punishes evil not unlike a vigilante. In Mytica, Maddox, a boy with the magic powers of a necromancer, is thrust into a plot to overthrow the goddess Valoria, while also trying to help the spirit of Becca Hatcher return to her world. All these seemingly unrelated plots eventually intertwine quite well, and the voice of each of the three different narrations is quite distinct , so there's no confusion.

I really enjoyed the dual perspective of modern-day world alongside a high fantasy world (and can I say yay for the author being Canadian and setting the book in Toronto), it really made certain details interesting especially given the Canadian setting. Crystal is quite spunky and fiery, plus she's smart enough to figure things out and not allow herself to be taken advantage of. Farrell is a classic bad boy with an angst-ridden background that is really good deep down but makes some very bad decisions (and to be fair it's not entirely his fault). Maddox is sweet and doubts himself but really comes into his own by the end of the book. I felt like Crystal and Farrell were more developed than Maddox and Becca mainly because Crystal and Farrell's narratives tend to overlap since they deal directly with each other in Toronto, while Maddox and Becca we only see for one-third of the book.

There was some lag in the middle of the story between setting up the story and just waiting for something to happen, but the latter third of the book is where things pick up nicely, leaving things open-ended enough for the next book. The book is heavy on the dialogue, and it leaves a bit to be desired in that department, but the story is still engaging and worth the read.

Recommendation:
Secret societies, bookstores, magic, and Toronto, need I say more?

Thoughts on the cover:
Not quite sure which character is supposed to be on the cover, but it's a nice image nonetheless.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mosquitoland - David Arnold

Title: Mosquitoland
Author: David Arnold
Publisher: Viking (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: August 9, 2015
Finished: August 13, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the "wastelands" if Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.

So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travellers along the way. But when her thousand-milejourney takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.

Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscope voice, Mosquitoland is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.

Review:
This book has had a lot of hype, mainly for being quirky, so I figured it was worth a read. In fact, it is quite quirky, I'm talking John Green kind of quirky.

Mary Iris Malone (Mim) is a hot mess, to put it lightly. Her parents are divorced, her dad quickly got remarried, her stepmom is pregnant, they moved her a thousand miles away from their home in Ohio to Mississippi (what Mim calls Mosquitoland), her dad thinks Mim is mentally unstable and forces her to take medication she doesn't really need, and to top it off, she learns her mom is sick back in Ohio. Mim takes off from school, raids her stepmom's coffee can stash of $800, and boards a Greyhound bound for Cleveland. Cue the quirky cast of characters including an adorable old lady named Arlene, a gruff but loveable bus driver, the cute guy in seat 17C, creepy Poncho Guy, a runaway with Down Syndrome named Walt, and more.

I quite enjoyed Mim's road trip journey, though it did drag a bit in the middle. Some parts felt a bit contrived and quirky just for quirky's sake, but overall I enjoyed the ride. Mim is headstrong and smart but makes some pretty ill-advised decisions along the way, which makes her a pretty realistic teenager. I wanted to smack Mim's dad upside the head several times (he needs therapy), and her stepmom Kathy does become pretty likeable in the end. I I have to admit I didn't get the point of adding Walt and Beck, I didn't feel they added much other than more quirk and a love interest that didn't really go anywhere.

Recommendation:
Worth the read if you're a fan of John Green-esque novels.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the teal colour scheme, and Mim on top of the bus is a nice touch.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Court of Thorns and Roses - Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Thorns and Roses
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 3, 2015
Finished: August 9, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she knows about only from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal but Tamlin - one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As Feyre dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility to a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she's been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it...or doom Tamlin - and his world - forever.

From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Sarah J. Maas comes a seductive and breathtaking new book that blends romance, adventure, and faerie lore into her most unforgettable story yet.

Review:
This is one of the books that's been receiving a lot of hype this summer, and whoo boy is it well deserved.

Feyre lives in a world separated by fae and mortals. Her family lives south of the the wall that separates the two realms and the human population as a whole isn't faring well. Needing to head out into the woods near The Wall to hunt for food, Feyre kills a wolf knowing full well it is a Fae in disguise. Another fae in beast-form later comes to her home to collect her in retribution for killing his friend, taking her to his home in Prythian (the fae lands) to live out the rest of her days. It turns out the beast is actually a High Lord named Tamlin, who, along with friend Lucien, is trying to protect the Spring Court that he rules over from the invading force that is slowly affecting all the courts in Prythian. Tamlin turns out to be a kind master, giving Feyre essentially the run of the estate except in cases where her safety is threatened by the numerous faerie creatures that could kill her if not for Tamlin's protection. As Feyre tries to discover more about Tamlin, Lucien, and the issues Prythian faces, she begins to fall in love with Tamlin, but she'll need to face the faerie blight head on in order to save Tamlin, Prythian, and the mortal realm.

I really liked how the story was very loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, there were enough elements to recognize but also enough originality to not get bored with the story. Feyre is an intriguing character, very fiery and prickly and doesn't show much vulnerability until closer to the end of the book, she's pretty much a human fireball. Tamlin feels like a cliche fantasy male that starts off cold and standoffish and later kind and likeable, but I didn't really mind that. Lucien is quite entertaining, he's witty and his banter with Feyre is hilarious. I did enjoy the plot with Amarantha, that part spiced up the story quite nicely just when things started to get slow. This is the first book in a series, and this book ended well in my opinion (no obvious cliffhanger), so it'll be interesting to see what is in store for future books. This book can get a bit steamy at times with sexually explicit language (not so much sexual scenes just descriptions), so this might not be something you want to give a twelve-year-old for example. There's also a fair bit of violence and gore so same thing applies to exercise caution with young or otherwise sensitive readers.

Recommendation:
Well worth the read in my opinion. Not as stellar as some other Beauty and the Beast inspired stories, but very enjoyable nonetheless, and I'll be looking for the sequels in the future.

Thoughts on the cover:
Typical B&B inspired colour scheme of red and black, with what I assume is Feyre on the one side, it looks cool regardless.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Family Romanov - Candace Fleming

Title: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, & The Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 292 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Nonfiction
Started: August 1, 2015
Finished: August 1, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

He was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: the wealthiest monarch in the world, who ruled over 130 million people and one-sixth of the earth's land surface, yet turned a blind eye to the abject poverty of his subjects.

She was Empress Alexandra: stern, reclusive, and painfully shy, a deeply religious woman obsessed with the corrupt mystic Rasputin.

Their daughters were the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia: completely isolated and immature, girls who wore identical white dresses and often signed joint letters as OTMA, the initials of their first names.

Their only son was the Tsarevich Alexei: youngest of the Romanovs, heir to the throne, a hemophiliac whose debilitating illness was kept secret from the rest of the world.

Award-winning author Candace Fleming  brilliantly showcases the extraordinary lives of the royal family, from their opulent upbringings to the crumbling of their massive empire, and finally to their tragic murders. Using captivating photos and compelling first-person accounts throughout, Fleming deftly maneuvers between the extravagant lives of the Romanovs and the plight of Russia's poor mass - the starving peasant farmers, the factory workers toiling long hours for little pay, and the disillusioned soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I. Readers will be transported back to a remarkable time when both a family and an empire came tumbling down.

Review:
We're Russian history enthusiasts in our house, so of course I had to pick this up. This book is incredibly well-written and researched (as evidence by the massive list of sources and footnotes at the back of the book), which made it a joy to read.

I like how the author incorporated first-hand accounts of the other social classes throughout the book (particularly peasants and workers) to illustrate what their lives were like compared to the royal family. It allows you to see the stark difference between the most privileged and the average citizen in Russia at the time. The author also includes a few pieces of information that were quite new to me, like how the education of the Romanov children was quite lacking in quality (I assumed that being royalty, they would've had the best tutors available).

Recommendation:
Extremely well-researched and written account of this time in Russian history that also includes accounts of the lower classes from the same time period.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they included my favourite picture of the Russian royal family, as well as a picture of peasants towards the bottom, very true to the theme of the book.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

El Deafo - Cece Bell

Title: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Publisher: Amulet Books, 2014
Length: 241 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: July 29, 2015
Finished: July 29, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece's class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in the school - in the hallway...in the teacher's lounge...in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different...and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

This funny, perceptive graphic novel memoir about growing up deaf is also an unforgettable book about growing up, and all the super and super embarrassing moments along the way.

Review:
This graphic novel has won several awards and accolades, so of course it went in the to-read pile. Cece is growing up in the mid-seventies with her family when she contracts meningitis at the age of four, and subsequently loses her hearing. After being outfitted with a hearing aid, she can hear again, but not as clearly as she could before. She is fortunate to attend a kindergarten class for deaf children where her teacher instructs them how to read lips and use visuals, gestures, and context clues to fully understand when other people speak to them. After her family moves, Cece attends first grade in a regular classroom, so she is given a more powerful hearing aid that allows her to hear everything with amazing clarity so long as her teacher wears a microphone around her neck. Cece struggles to make friends, partly because of her hearing loss and partly from your average everyday social issues kids go through. Some of the friends she makes treat her differently because of her hearing aid and some don't, and along the way she learns how to navigate friendships and speak up for herself.

The superhero aspect is pretty cute. Cece refers to her superhero alter ego as El Deafo and considers the Phonic Ear (the special hearing aid she wears for school) to be her superpower. She longs for a sidekick (a good friend) to share adventures with, and through learning to communicate and open up she eventually gets her wish.

It's interesting to see this author's gripes about the hearing population portrayed here. As written in her afterward at the end of the book, every deaf person's experience is different: some prefer to use hearing aids and cochlear implants and some don't, some prefer to use sign language and some don't, some view their hearing loss as a disability and some don't. As a child, the author preferred not to use sign language and rely on her hearing aids and reading lips. She gets exasperated with one friend that insists on speaking slowly, emphasizing the syllables, because it affects Cece's ability to properly lip-read. She hates it when her friends turn off the lights at a sleepover while continuing to talk to her because she can't see their lips.

I found it interesting that the technology for the hearing impaired hasn't really changed that much, I've used a system that resembles Cece's Phonic Ear, though is much more aesthetically pleasing. As a teacher, I've used a microphone that amplifies my voice directly into a student's earpieces, as well as an FM system that amplifies my voice via speakers so it can be heard by all students, not just the ones with a hearing impairment. I have a mild hearing impairment (and had it as a child) and would've benefitted from these systems, so I'm glad that kids are better able to access these things.

Recommendation:
A great little graphic novel about growing up in general and with a visible difference. I would recommend this for junior, intermediate, and high school classrooms, it's sure to please.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Cece is shown in her superhero persona among the clouds. You can also see a good example of the author's drawing style, where all the people are drawn like rabbits (super cute!)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Wrath and The Dawn - Renee Ahdieh

Title: The Wrath and The Dawn
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Publisher: G.P Putnam's Sons (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 17, 2015
Finished: July 26, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

In a land ruled by a murderous boy-king, each dawn brings heartache to a new family. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, is a monster. Each night he takes a new bride only to have a silk cord wrapped around her throat come morning. When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad's dearest friend falls victim to Khalid, Shahrzad vows vengeance and volunteers to be his next bride. Shahrzad is determined not only to stay alive but to end the caliph's reign of terror once and for all.

Night after night, Shahrzad beguiles Khalid, weaving stories that enchant, ensuring her survival, though she knows each dawn could be her last. But something she never expected begins to happen: Khalid is nothing like she'd imagined him to be. This monster is a boy with a tormented heart. Incredibly, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love. How is this possible? It's an unforgivable betrayal. Still, Shahrzad has come to understand all is not as it seems in this palace of marble and stone. She resolves to uncover whatever secrets lurk and, despite her love, be ready to take Khalid's life as retribution for the many lives he's stolen. Can their love survive this world of stories and secrets?

Inspired by A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn is a sumptuous and enthralling read from beginning to end.

Review:
This book is surrounded by so much hype, I pretty much had to read it. Although I didn't fall madly, crazy-in-love with it, it was an immensely enjoyable read.

Based on 1001 Nights, you have a king in a middle-eastern/arabian-esque land who takes a new bride every night and kills her by morning. A new wife manages to defy the odds by spinning tales that keep the king intrigued enough to let her live. When Shahrzad's best friend, Shiva, dies in such a manner, Shahrzad volunteers as Khalid's next bride so she might avenge Shiva's death. Shahrzad is great as a character, she gets my stamp of approval. She is fierce and fiery, sharp-tongued, and pretty good with a bow and arrow. She wavers on the whole revenge thing when she realizes she's falling in love with Khalid, which takes her down a few pegs, but they have to fall in love for the story to work, so not much you can do there. Khalid was very nicely developed as well, he's very stoic at times, but then surprises everyone by being incredibly romantic and emotional and a formidable swordsman. I also liked Jalal, especially how he interacted with Khalid. Shahrzad and Khalid make for an incredible couple, and their conversations made me feel like I'd been hit by a 2x4 and then melted in a puddle on the floor, some of the dialogue is amazing.

I wish the magic had been more developed. It felt as if the magic element came out of nowhere towards the end in regards to the reasons why Khalid kills all his brides. I also wish readers could've seen more of the reasons why Khalid keeps Shahrzad alive, we can guess but we never really know. The good thing is that a sequel is coming (the cliffhanger had me going for a while until I saw the preview for book 2), so we'll get a chance to see more development in those areas.

Recommendations:
If you like retellings, you need to give this a shot, if for nothing else than the incredible portrayal of the romance between Khalid and Shahrzad, it's worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I adore how this was designed. The red cover with gold inlays make for an eye-pleasing colour scheme, and you can see a hint of a portrait of Shahrzad underneath, the full colour version of which you can see on the inside cover. I love how Shahrzad actually looks middle eastern as well (yay for diversity in YA fiction!).