Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Wells Bequest - Polly Shulman

Title: The Wells Bequest (Companion to The Grimm Legacy)
Author: Polly Shulman
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 257 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Science Fiction
Started: October 28, 2013
Finished: October 30, 2013

Summary:
From the inside cover:

What if time travel were really possible?

When a miniature time machine appears in Leo's bedroom, he has no idea who the tiny, beautiful girl riding it is. But in the few moments before it vanishes, returning  to wherever-and whenever-it came from, he recognizes the other tiny rider: himself!

His search for the time machine, the girl, and his fate leads him to the New York Circulating Materials Repository, a magical library that lends out objects instead of books. Hidden away in the repository basement is the Wells Bequest, a secret collection of powerful objects straight out of classic science-fiction novels: robots, rockets, submarines, a shrink ray-and one very famous time machine. And when Leo's adventure of a lifetime suddenly turns deadly, he must journey to 1895 to warn real-life scientist Nikola Tesla about a dangerous invention. A race for time is on!

In this grand time-travel adventure full of paradoxes and humour, Polly Shulman gives readers a taste of how fascinating science can be, deftly blending classic science fiction elements with the contemporary fantasy world readers fell in love with in The Grimm Legacy.

Review:
I read The Grimm Legacy years ago and loved it to pieces (my copy is on my "absolute favourites that I must save in case of fire" shelf). So when I found out the author was writing a sequel/companion novel, I pretty much had a bibliophile freak-out and waited ever so patiently for the release date.

The Wells Bequest takes place several years after the events of The Grimm Legacy. All the teenaged characters from the first book are older and have obviously aged-out of their jobs as pages in the Repository, but Anjali's little sister Jaya makes a reappearance as the now head page, along with a new character, Leo. Leo's family is Russian and incredibly science-oriented, his older brother and sister got into prestigious academic schools and are researching heavy-duty stuff, while Leo (though quite intelligent as well) gets the reputation as the dumb one in the family when he doesn't get into the same schools as his siblings. While researching a science fair project and subsequently encountering his future self on a time machine, Leo discovers the Repository and falls in love both with it and Jaya. After managing to get himself a job as a page and uncovering the secret of the Special Collections, Leo starts to uncover what his future self was trying to tell him and how to get H. G. Wells' time machine to work. Cue a whirlwind adventure to 1895 with scientists (and Mark Twain!) and mind-bending paradoxes about time travel (I've read my share of time-travel stuff and even I had to re-read parts), and you've got a really satisfying story.

I loved revisiting the novel's universe with the Repository, it's just amazingly fun and the stuff of daydreams. I appreciated the addition of a male main character this time around since The Grimm Legacy had a female protagonist, and it helps that Leo is smart but still very much a realistic teenaged boy with insecurities that loves his video games. The whole novel is very much an homage to intelligence of all kinds, the characters are not only well-read but are musically inclined and science and math oriented, and this is shown as a positive thing which is isn't often the case with middle-grade or YA. The characters are also multi-cultural and diverse: Leo is Russian, Jaya's family is Indian, and Marc (who makes a reappearance) is black, so diversity both in culture and gender is always a plus for me. The romance between Leo and Jaya, while one of the cutest I have seen, is a great example for young readers. Leo and Jaya treat each other respectfully and Leo says often that he likes Jaya because she's insanely smart (not to mention funny and brave), which is refreshingly different from most scenarios where girls are encouraged to dumb themselves down due to the fear that boys won't like intelligent girls. Plus, there's Mark Twain, and any book that incorporates Mark Twain automatically gets a thumbs-up from me.

Recommendation:
A wonderfully written, satisfying story; everyone needs to read the first book (The Grimm Legacy) and this new instalment and gets as hooked as I did.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuation in style from The Grimm Legacy cover, plus the visualization of how the time travel actually occurs was interesting to see. I also like how Leo and Jaya are darkened so you can't actually see their faces or what they're wearing.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List - Leon Leyson

Title: The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List
Author: Leon Leyson
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 225 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: October 22, 2013
Finished: October 23, 2013

Summary:
From the inside cover:

"Not even the scariest of fairy tales could have prepared me for the monsters I would confront while just a boy of ten...or for the hero, disguised as a monster himself, who would save my life."

Leon Leyson loved playing on the Krakow streetcars with his friends and tagging along after his older brothers...

Then, suddenly, German soldiers were:
In his country.
In his city.
In his home.

Seemingly overnight, the life he knew vanished. The Third Reich wanted him, and every other Jew in Europe, dead.

The darkest of times can unleash the worst in human nature-and also the best. Leon Leyson lived through those times. Forced from home to ghetto to concentration camps, separated from his family for months, he experienced things that no child should ever experience. But there was one thing that could never be torn away: his will to survive. And one man-one Nazi-showed him that hope can come in the most unexpected way. That man was Oskar Schindler; his famous "list" would mean life for Leon and for more than a thousand other Jews caught in the Nazis' net.

The Boy on the Wooden Box is a tour de force-a legacy of hope and a call for all of us to remember those who didn't get a chance for tomorrow.

Review:
I picked this up in another attempt to work more non-fiction in my reading pile, and of course I can't turn down a Holocaust book.

This is a memoir written by Leon Leyson, one of the youngest Schindler's List members. It begins with his childhood in rural eastern Poland, his family's move to Krakow in 1938, and the increasing restrictions with the invasion of the Nazis in 1939 which lead to the Leyson family being moved from ghetto to concentration camps and eventually being saved by being workers in Oskar Schindler's factory.

I liked how the author goes into detail about exactly what it meant for Schindler to help the Jews by doing what he did. I've seen the film Schindler's List so many times, we use it in our schools fairly often, and I never fully believed that Schindler acted in a truly selfless manner, it seemed like he must have gotten something out of it like the free labour. Granted my only impression of the figure is from the movie, but that was my impression nonetheless. This book really reinforced that Schindler didn't actually get any monetary advantage from his workers, and in fact spent what remained of his fortune bribing other Nazis relating to the care of his workers and on food for them. So I now have more respect for Schindler based on this interpretation.

I also liked how the memoir goes into what happened to Leyson after the war when he settled in the United States, how hard it was to talk about what he'd been through with others because people didn't couldn't even comprehend what happened because there was almost no words to effectively describe it.

Recommendation:
A wonderfully engaging memoir of a Jewish boy who survived the war because of Oskar Schindler.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the faded watercolour look here, not enough to see detail but enough to know what you're looking at.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Our Rights: How Kids are Changing the World - Janet Wilson

Title: Our Rights: How Kids are Changing the World
Author: Janet Wilson
Publisher: Second Story Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 32 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: October 21, 2013
Finished: October 21, 2013

Summary:
From the inside cover:

A girl who spoke out against her government for the rights of aboriginal children, a boy who walked across his country to raise awareness of homelessness, and a former child soldier who wants to make music not war...

Here are true stories of kids just like you who are standing up for their rights. Read about how they have made a difference.

Dylan Mahalingham from the USA started an online charity to raise money to fight child poverty. The bravery of Nujood Ali from Yemen inspired other girls who were being forced to marry too young. Anita Khushwaha from India became a beekeeper to pay for school, even though it was considered a job only men could do. All of them are making a difference for children's rights, and you can too.

Review:
My to-read pile has been severely lacking in non-fiction lately, so I perused the library and saw this lovely piece. We reinforce to our students all the time that even one person can create lasting change, and this book is a prime example of the amazing things children and teenagers can do when they want things to change in their world.

The book is a quick read, the reading level is probably around middle grade but the content is more than applicable for young adults as well. The book is laid out like so: each two-page spread is dedicated to a young person and their accomplishments relating to furthering the cause of children's rights in their country. There is a section relating directly to the person featured and another section relating to relaying information on the overall issue the person was fighting against. The topics covered are vast, from child poverty and homelessness, the rights of aboriginal children and child brides, to the right of children to have a birth certificate. Countries represented are varied as well, and I'm pretty sure I counted blurbs from every continent (except Antarctica of course). Some of the children featured are already known to some readers, some I recognized were: Malala Yousafzai, Nujood Ali, Zach Bonner, and Craig Kielburger.

The thing I liked was that not all the children represented did amazingly huge things like start their own charities and have huge movements attached to their names (some do but not all), because sometimes that's intimidating for kids that think you need to do those things to make any difference so why bother trying. A lot of these children did very simple things as individuals, like the girl in India who refused to be married at 15 and bought beekeeping kits for herself so she could work, and other girls followed her example.

Recommendation:
This is a great book for older kids and teenagers to reinforce the idea of standing up for what you believe in, and that any small change can make a lasting difference. This is a book I'd recommend for parents to read to their kids and for teachers to have in their classrooms.

Thoughts on the cover:
The author is also the illustrator, and she makes some wonderful painting-style illustrations of the kids she describes, one of which is the cover image.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Prince Who Walked With Lions - Elizabeth Laird

Title: The Prince Who Walked With Lions
Author: Elizabeth Laird
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 281 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: October 18, 2013
Finished: October 18, 2013

Summary:
From the back of the book:

War has torn Prince Alamayu's world apart. His father, the Emperor of Abyssinia, has been killed by the British, who have decided to take the young prince home with them and educate him as an English gentleman.

Alamayu is a brilliant sportsman, and soon earns the love and respect of many. To the ignorant bullies at school, though, he is no better than a slave. But Alamayu is a Prince. Can he conquer his fear and show his tormentors that he has the heart -and the courage-of a lion?

Review:
This is an interesting piece of historical fiction about colonization and empires, devastation of cultures, and xenophobia and racism. Alamayu is a young prince of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the late 19th century when Britain invades. After his father commits suicide and his mother dies of consumption, Alamayu is taken to Britain to be made into a "proper English boy".

Between missing his parents, culture, and homeland, and trying to fit into a society where most people don't see beyond his skin colour, Alamayu has a rough time adjusting to say the least. The story is a wonderful commentary on the consequences of colonialism and the dangers of building an empire on the conquered people. Alamayu spent more than 10 years in Britain, forgetting his native language and cut off from the remainder of his family at the expense of colonial expansion. This puts a very human face to things most of us only read about and rarely consider on a deeper level.

Recommendation:
A wonderfully written piece on subject matter not often explored in children's literature.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the silhouette of Alamayu with the British cityscape along the bottom with the lion superimposed in the background.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lexicon - Max Barry

"I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because flunking a paper for stupid reasons makes your English teacher cry."


Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Adult; Thriller
Started: October 8, 2013
Finished: October 17, 2013

Summary:

From the inside cover:

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics-at least not in the usual sense. They are taught to persuade, to use language to manipulate minds, to wield words as weapons. The very best graduate as "poets"and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose. 


Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organizer's recruiters. Drawn into their strange world, which is populated by people with names like Bronte and Eliot, she learns their key rule: that every person can be classified by an extremely specific personality type , his mind segmented and ultimately controlled by the skillful application of words. For this reason she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, Emily becomes the school's most talented prodigy, until she makes a catastrophic mistake: she falls in love. 


Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an "outlier," immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organizationand its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power. 


A brilliant thriller that connects very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data collection to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, Lexicon is Max Barry's most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet. 


Review:

I saw this in a book newsletter and the plot sounded amazing, so I decided to give it a shot. I loved the premise in the novel that persuasion is akin to a type of magic, but not in the Harry Potter wand waving kind of way, more of the "gaze upon the amazing prowess of my mind" kind of way. 

Students are recruited to this special school based upon their ability to persuade others, but they also need to be able to hold their own against persuasion itself. They aren't told anything about what the point behind them learning Latin and studying dictionaries is, but as the students advance they start to piece things together as they are exposed to certain combinations of words that will render people associated with that personality type helpless and under the chanter's control. 


The story is told in two different times (Wil's story in present day and Emily's in the past) that eventually converge, and they way they do is a nice little twist. I loved how all the graduates got names of famous writers/poets/playwrights; especially when those names reflected different cultures (eg. a German poet goes by Goethe). I also loved how the author put in little snippets from articles in between chapters that make the reader think of the implications of this type of scenario on privacy laws. When a survey of seemingly innocuous questions can determine anyone's personality type and uncover the string of words to make them open to coercion, the ramifications are endless, not just for advertisers but for politics and law as well. 


The book is well written, starts off a little slow with Wil's part (at least in my opinion) but then picks up with Emily's story. 


Recommendation:

An excellent fast-paced novel with a wonderful mind-boggling premise. 

Thoughts on the cover:

Eh, kind of junky, but I do like how they included one of the open-ended questions from the novel's surveys, "Why did you do it?' in the background. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Testing - Joelle Charbonneau

Title: The Testing
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 344 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: October 2, 2013
Finished: October 4, 2013

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer . Isn't that what they say? But how close is too close when they may be one in the same?

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation's chosen few, who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing-their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honoured to be chosen as a Testing candidate, eager to prove her worthiness as a University  student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father's advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies: Trust no one.

Surely though, she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance. Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every gruelling (and deadly) day of The Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.

Review:
There was a lot of hype surrounding this release, plus the synopsis sounded like my exam nightmares from high school multiplied by a hundred, so I picked it up.

After reading the whole thing in two sittings over two days, I can sum up The Testing as, "The Hunger Games, the academic version."

Malencia (Cia) Vale lives in the Five Lakes Colony (formerly the Great Lakes area) in a post-apocalyptic North America ravaged by natural disasters, nuclear war, and political conflict. The people responsible for government, education, and genetically engineering new food crops to grow in the harsh climate are hand-picked from each of the colonies and put through a rigorous testing procedure that tests their academic skills, hands-on abilities, survival skills, and how far they're willing to go to secure a spot at the University. Cia's father was a University graduate who is haunted by his experience (yet can't actually remember it) who warns his daughter not to trust anyone. But like any good game involving others, Cia can't make it totally on her own and must rely on someone, the question is will her trust be rewarded?

There are a lot of similarities between The Testing and The Hunger Games, so much to the point where some readers are immediately turned off by it. Though I do agree there are very obvious similarities, I personally enjoyed the unique aspects of The Testing, mainly the aspect of an academic Battle Royale scenario (though it does get very Hunger Games-esque from the mid-point on with the survival test). I liked Cia as a character: she's the youngest of all the candidates but isn't overly naive or innocent, she's intelligent and very observant, plus she more or less maintains her humanity throughout the whole experience.

Cia answers questions on a history exam in order to fill readers in on the background information for the book's universe. I appreciated that the author used this method to address world-building, it wasn't forced and fit naturally into the plot.

The romance aspect wasn't amazing by any means which was a little disappointing. There isn't a lot of background on Tomas and Cia growing up, you just know they went to school together, there's no real flashbacks or memories related to their relationship to build upon, so the whole "OMG I love you so much" comes on a little fast, but understandable given the traumatic experiences they go through together. Granted this scenario is similar in The Hunger Games, but I think it did a better job of making the romance believable plus included flashbacks from childhood to add to the relationship building.

Unlike The Hunger Games where a lot of the killing occurs mainly in the background and when it is upfront it's usually done in self-defence, the killing that occurs in The Testing is very much obvious (as narrated by Cia to her horror), and either done very much on purpose by other candidates or allowed by the Testing authorities. But like The Hunger Games, the violence isn't glorified, and the consequences are shown (the witnesses are forever traumatized by it, established that the victims had families etc.).

I quite enjoyed this, so I'll be picking up the sequels (this is the first book of a trilogy), but I urge you to give it a read and see for yourself.

Recommendation:
Similar to The Hunger Games overall but with enough differences in plot and details that it can be enjoyable depending on the reader. The violence is more extreme (though not glorified), so you'll want to have a discussion with more sensitive readers. I definitely think this is definitely for older readers (high school age and up) due to the increased violence, so I wouldn't give it to grade 7s or 8s like I would The Hunger Games.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the shimmery blue colour combined with the silver of Cia's testing symbol, it's a very pleasing cover aesthetically.