Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Witch's Boy - Kelly Barnhill

Title: The Witch's Boy
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Algonquin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 18, 2014
Finished: December 23, 2014

From the inside cover:

When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic Ned's mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it's Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.

Meanwhile, across the enchanted forest that borders Ned's village lives Aine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King, who is haunted by her mother's last words to her: "The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his." When Aine's and Ned's paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to stop the war that's about to boil over between their two kingdoms?

I knew I recognized the author's name when I saw this. I read Iron-Hearted Violet years ago and adored it, so picking up a new book of the author's was a no-brainer.

Ned's mother is referred to as Sister Witch, who cures the town's ailments and averts disasters by channeling magic through her and suffers the ill effects afterwards. Ned and his twin brother Tam fall into a river as small children, and though Tam dies, their mother manages to merge Tam's spirit into Ned's body so that in a way both boys manage to survive. This incident leaves Ned unable to speak properly, making him stutter. Aine's (pronounced like "Anya") father is the Bandit King, who lived a quiet life when he married his wife, but reverts back to his wild ways after her death. Aine becomes very practical when her father starts to abandon her in his quest to steal the magic that Ned's mother guards. When Sister Witch is away in the Queen's city and the Bandit King arrives, Ned makes a rash decision and invites the magic into himself to help keep it safe, and gets kidnapped in the process. Thus sets in motion the events that make for a very well-written, engaging story.

The author's writing style is incredible, it's written like an old-fashioned fairy tale that draws you in (I quite enjoy that style). Each character has their own unique and individual voice, so there's no confusion when the point of view switches from one character to another (she even managed to give magic stones a unique personality, that's talent). Plus, the author gets credit for creating incredibly likeable male and female protagonists, as well as giving Aine a unique Irish name.

Incredibly well-written fantasy that will sure to please.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love that it's not your typical fantasy cover. I didn't quite realize what was going on until I looked at it twice though.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jackaby - William Ritter

Title: Jackaby
Author: William Ritter
Publisher: Algonquin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 299 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Mystery, Fantasy
Started: December 15, 2014
Finished: December 18, 2014

From the inside cover:

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary - including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby''s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: a serial killer is on the loose. The police - with the exception of the handsome detective Charlie Cane - are convinced their culprit is an ordinary villain. Jackaby is certain the foul deeds are the work of an inhuman creature, the likes of which the authorities are adamant to deny. Doctor Who meets Sherlock in a debut novel, the first in a series, brimming with cheeky humour and a dose of the macabre.

When I first read the hype for this in my book newsletter, I knew this was a book I was going to love. Thankfully I was right, this was an excellent book which has left me clamoring for the next installment.

Abigail is a rather independent woman for the Victorian era. She wants to go on archaeological digs like her father and absconds with her college tuition money to pursue that. When that doesn't quite work out, she travels to America in the hope of making it on her own to avoid crawling back to her rigid parents. On her first day off the boat, she meets Jackaby, a strange, but otherwise pleasing mix of Sheldon Cooper, Sherlock Holmes, and The Doctor from Doctor Who. Jackaby works alongside the police department (begrudgingly so) solving crimes that involve supernatural elements. He is in search of an assistant that can handle his unique line of work (meaning that they can avoid being turned into an animal or other such fate), and finds one in Abigail. Together they work to solve the recent mystery of a string of strange killings.

I loved this book for so many reasons. The supernatural elements are quite well done and not your typical ones either: banshees, a redcap, Caini (werewolf-like shapeshifters), a prior assistant turned into a duck, a resident ghost in Jackaby's office, and a frog that releases noxious gas if you stare at it.

The humour is wonderful here and I guarantee it will have you laughing. Jackaby himself has a kind of witty, cheeky humour that thankfully rubs off on Abigail throughout the book, so the conversations between them are quite amusing. I can picture this being made into a movie, the dialogue lends itself well to that. Plus, I love the scenes with the frog ("Oh my god, you stared at the frog, didn't you?!")

The characters are appealing but I'm waiting on more development of them. Jackaby is intelligent but tortured, Abigail is very independent and rejects common gender roles, Charlie is fairly ordinary but likeable, and Jenny is pretty awesome. There isn't much development of said characters, so I'm hoping that will come in later books, but otherwise I like what I see here. The mystery was pretty easy to figure out, but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless.

This is a must-read, if for nothing else than the humour and Jackaby himself (can you tell I love him?). I'll be not-so-patiently waiting for the next book.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love. It. The colour scheme is very appealing, the silhouette of Jackaby actually looks like he's described, the addition of Abigail in her red dress, and the title in script font all comes together for a great piece of eye candy.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pandemic - Yvonne Ventresca

Title: Pandemic
Author: Yvonne Ventresca
Publisher: Sky Pony Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 330 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: December 9, 2014
Finished: December 12, 2014

From the inside cover:

Even under the most normal circumstances, high school can be rather tough and painful. Unfortunately, Lilianna's circumstances are anything but normal. Only a few people know what caused her sudden change from model student to the withdrawn pessimist she has become, but her situation isn't about to get any better. When people begin coming down with a quick-spreading illness that doctors are unable to treat, Lil's worst fears are realized. With her parents called away on business before the contagious outbreak, Lil's town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread illness and fatal disaster. Now, she's more alone than she's been ever since the "incident" at her school months ago.

With friends and neighbours dying all around her, Lil does everything she can just to survive. But as the disease rages on, so does unexpected tension as Lil is torn between an old ex and a new romantic interest. Just when it all seems too much, the cause of her original trauma shows up at her door.

In this thrilling debut from author Yvonne Ventresca, Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences but also her own personal demons.

I read the synopsis and it appealed to the paranoid, anxious person in me, and I was not disappointed.

Sixteen-year-old Lilianna has extreme anxiety and PTSD after being molested by one of her teachers. Months afterwards she is still hoarding non-perishable food items until her room looks like a food bank, consumed with being prepared for the worst. It doesn't help that her father works with the book's equivalent of the Centre of Disease Control and has anti-vitals stockpiled in a safe in their basement. When her mom and dad go away for weekend business trips just as a deadly new flu outbreak hits the east coast, Lil's town is hit and almost instantly everything shuts down. Lil has to find a way to survive the flu as well as looters, and take care of herself and band of friends that are now orphans.

I liked how the author described Lil's anxiety and paranoia, I've had moments like that right down to the stocking of emergency supplies. The timeline of the illness in the novel seemed pretty well researched, and I appreciated the index in the back of the book for websites for emergency preparedness (as well as sexual assault helplines). The one thing that I wasn't nuts about was how characters were introduced and died of the flu shortly after, so I wasn't really affected by their deaths like I feel I should be. And I think Lil and company got off easy since the book takes place in April, I figured a book on a killer strain of bird flu should take place in the dead of winter with a snowstorm (I like my characters to be challenged).

A heart-pounding book about one of my worst nightmares, and the reason why I am yet again researching 3-day emergency kits and not a bit angry about it.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the blue colour scheme and the image in the corner of the multitude of birds forming one giant bird.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sisters - Raina Telgemeier

Title: Sisters
Author: Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 200 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel
Started: December 8, 2014
Finished: December 8, 2014

From the back of the book:

Raina can't wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren't quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she's also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn't improve much over the years. But when a baby brother enters the picture and later, when something doesn't seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all.

Raina Telgemeier uses her signature humour and charm to tell the story of her relationship with her little sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.

I read the companion book, Smile, years ago when it first came out. It was pretty revolutionary at the time, a North American comic for kids by a female artist with a female protagonist in completely realistic situations. Most comics up until recently were mostly male-dominated with superheroes in fantasy situations, which I'm not knocking, I love my Batman stuff as much as the next fangirl, but it's not for everyone. Most girls like me in years past turned to Japanese manga for more sincere female protagonists, but I've noticed more domestic comics are coming out that appeal greatly to female readers, of which this particular artist has greatly contributed to.

Whereas Smile looked at author Raina's experience with braces and other dental horrors, Sisters examines her rocky relationship with her younger sister, Amara. Sisters takes place when Raina is fourteen and Amara is nine, while they are stuck in a car for a week each way with their mother and younger brother Will on the way from California to Colorado. Through a series of flashbacks readers see Raina at age four or five begging for a little sister to play with, and her disappointment when Amara is born and her expectations aren't met. Through more flashbacks we see the birth of their younger brother, the crowded conditions they live in, and how Raina escapes through music and art.

I liked how it showcased how different siblings can be, and how not every set of sisters are automatically best buddies for life. Raina is self-conscious whereas Amara is confident, Amara is prickly whereas Raina is more accommodating, and though both girls are quite talented in art, Amara tends to steal Raina's thunder. I also liked the scenes at the family reunion where Raina doesn't fit in with the adults quite yet, is not accepted into the circle of her older cousins, is too old for the younger cousins her brother's age, so she and Amara don't fit in anywhere. As an only child with mostly younger cousins on one side and no cousins on the other side, I can completely sympathize with that feeling, especially when I was a teenager.

A really humorous look at the tumultuous relationship that can exist between siblings. The art style is appealing, and the content is great for younger readers but can appeal to teenagers as well. Plus, the whole scene with the snake in the car was hilarious.

Thoughts on the cover:
I liked the continuation from the Smile cover, with Raina's smiley face with braces contrasted against Amara's prickly, angry face.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Zoo at the Edge of the World - Eric Kahn Gale

Title: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
Author: Eric Kahn Gale
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 233 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: November 28, 2014
Finished: December 2, 2014

From the inside cover:

Marlin is not slow, or mute; what he is is a stutterer, and that makes it impossible for him to convince people otherwise. What he is also is a Rackham: the younger son of the world-famous explorer Ronan Rackham, renowned for his daring exploits in the jungles of South America, taming wild beasts and filling in the blank spaces on the map. Ronan is the owner and proprietor of the Zoo at the Edge of the World, a resort where the well-to-do from all over the globe can come to experience the last bit of the wild left at the end of the nineteenth century. For Ronan, each day is a new opportunity to cast a light into the dark recesses of the world; for Marlin, each day is a struggle: to speak, to communicate, to live up to the lofty expectations that his family name carries. This isn't easy when the only ones who understand him are his father and his pet monkey.

In order to impress a powerful duke who comes to visit the zoo, Marlin's father ventures into the jungle and brings back a mysterious black jaguar, the only one in captivity. Everyone is terrified of it, including Marlin - until one night, when the jaguar confers upon him a powerful gift. Soon, Marlin finds himself with a difficult choice to make and, finally, something to say. If only he can figure out how to say it.

Marlin is twelve years old and lives in South America with his father and older brother. The family operates the Zoo at the Edge of the World, an exotic resort for the wealthy and elite to vacation to. Everyone but Ronan thinks Marlin is a dim-witted idiot, but he has a wonderful affinity with animals and can actually speak to them without a stutter. When his father captures a jaguar as the main attraction for the zoo, Marlin soon discovers that he now has the ability to communicate directly with animals and can understand them. He soon solves all the little problems the zoo has been having by talking to the animals, but also realizes a family visiting the zoo could threaten his family's livelihood as well as that of the animals and needs to take action to save his home.

The book has a wonderful evocative setting. You don't often see books set in the wild jungles of South America during a vaguely reminiscent Victorian era time period, so this was refreshing to read.  The themes of colonialism and control over things that shouldn't be within our control are quite powerful, with Marlin making the choice about what kind of person he wants to be rather than what others expect him to be.

A great little book that was a surprisingly great read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Marlin and the jaguar are featured, it's a powerful image.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Winter People - Rebekah L. Purdy

Title: The Winter People
Author: Rebekah L. Purdy
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 24, 2014
Finished: November 27, 2014

From the inside cover:

Salome Montgomery fears winter - the cold, the snow, the ice, but most of all, the frozen pond she fell through as a child. Haunted by the voices of the strange beings that pulled her to safety, she hasn't forgotten their warning to "stay away." For eleven years, she has avoided the winter woods...until she is left in charge of maintaining her grandparents' estate. This includes the "special gifts" that must be left at the back of the property.

Salome discovers she's a key player in a world she's tried for years to avoid. At the centre of this world is the strange and beautiful Nevin. Cursed with dark secrets and knowledge of the creatures in the woods, he takes Salome's life in a new direction - one where she'll have to decide between her longtime crush, Colton, who could cure her fear of winter. Or Nevin, who, along with an appointed bodyguard, Gareth, protects her from the darkness that swirls in the snowy backdrop.

An evil that, given the chance, will kill her.

I saw the cover and read the synopsis (and it just happened to be getting cold and snowy here) and it put me in the right mood to read this. Unfortunately this book just didn't live up to its potential. It was an engrossing read and there were aspects I quite enjoyed, but in the end there were too many things that made me roll my eyes and detracted from the overall enjoyment.

Salome fell through the frozen pond on her grandparents' property when she was six. Though she was mysteriously rescued, she was forever traumatized by the experience. It didn't help that she hears voices in the winter too, voices that speak about her, voices that want to kill her. Avoiding winter by becoming a hermit during those months has helped till now, but when her grandparents vacation south for their health and her mother injured and her father working, Salome is the only one to maintain the property while they're gone.

While working in the woods, she meets Nevin, your typical stoic romantic interest that spurns her at times, claiming he's no good for her and that he hurts those he loves, while at the same time being incredibly enticing. She's also dating Colton, her classmate and long-time crush, who she discovers has a smidge of an anger-management problem. At the same time, bodyguard Gareth keeps saving her butt from constant frigid dangers in the Michigan woods, all the while being very appealing as a love interest as well. Eventually Salome gets it together enough to connect the very obvious pieces of the situation (your obligatory curse of course), and tries to solve it in order to be with one of the three potential love interests.

First off, the writing falls flat. The author overuses profanity, slang, and general low-brow language that gives the impression that a seventeen-year-old is not only the focus of the book but also the author of it. Considering the content of the book (faeries, supernatural, etc.), I would expect more from what I saw.

Secondly, Salome is not what I would consider a realistic character or one I would recommend as a strong female protagonist. Salome is very passive, she can't even research things properly on her own. I don't know about you, but if I almost died several times from freaky ice creatures and suspected my family was hiding things from me about said freaky things, I'd have my butt on the computer or in the library until I figured that crap out for myself rather than putting it off because I wasn't ready for it. She is constantly being rescued and even refers to herself as a damsel in distress. I'm not saying female characters need to be strong 100% of the time and can't be rescued at all, but the level of dependence she has on all three guys just gets repetitive and old. She also at one point  dates three guys at a time, which later drops to two. She is indecisive and strings them along because she can't figure out what she wants, which is a bad example for girls to see, and is a horrible stereotype of women that I would love to never see again in a YA book. And the portrayal of Kadie is not better, seriously all that girl talks about is screwing guys, talk about a one-dimensional character.

Thirdly, the cliches, oh the cliches. From the love square (this is definitely a first in my experience) of moody, unpredictable men that have you screaming at Salome, "run for the hills, girl!", to the "I'm no good for you, I can't kiss you, you need to forget about me" line from Nevin, to efforts to prolong the book through Salome's family's refusal to tell her anything about the curse or even point her in the right direction despite the number of near fatal encounters she has, there's just too many aspects that have me banging my head against the book in frustration.

Granted, there are things I liked. I did enjoy the setting. You don't often see books set in Michigan in the winter, so I liked the atmosphere that gave to the novel. The faery folk were quite mysterious and spooky at times, so there's a plus as well. Gareth as a character was enjoyable, he is the better choice out of the group of Salome's suitors and one that doesn't act like a douche or a psychopath. I like the author's choice of Salome as the main character's name, I'm still figuring out if the cultural significance behind the name fits with Salome in this book, but I give the author credit for using a uncommon name. The entire novel was very engrossing despite the problems listed above, regardless of what I felt about Salome I still wanted to know what happened to the girl.

I'm torn. I think this is worth a borrow from the library, but will eventually infuriate some readers to the point of abandoning the book.

Thoughts on the cover:
This cover is freaking gorgeous and fits completely with the theme and setting of the book. I love the pensive look in the model's face and having her face fade into the trees and snow with the gate at the back.

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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Time of the Fireflies - Kimberley Griffiths Little

Title: The Time of the Fireflies
Author: Kimberley Griffiths Little
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 356 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: September 26, 2014
Finished: September 28, 2014

From the inside cover:

When Larissa Renaud starts receiving eerie phone calls on a disconnected old phone in her family's antique shop, she just knows she's in for a strange summer. A series of clues leads her to the muddy riverbank, where clouds of fireflies dance among the cypress knees and cattails each evening at twilight.

The fireflies are beautiful and mysterious, and they take Larissa on a magical journey through time, where she learns the secrets of her family's tragic past - deadly, curse-ridden secrets that could endanger the future of her family as she knows it. And when her mother suddenly disappears, it becomes clear that it is up to Larissa to prevent history from repeating itself, and a fatal tragedy from striking the people she loves.

Critically acclaimed author Kimberley Griffiths Little brings her signature lyricism to this thrilling tale of unexpected friendship, haunting mystery, and dangerous adventure.

I picked this up purely for the cover and the title, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book.

Larissa is twelve and summer has just begun in the Louisiana bayou. Her mother is expecting a baby in a few weeks, so Larissa is helping out her parents in their antique shop that doubles as their home. One day, after getting a mysterious phone call from one of the old phones in the shop that isn't even hooked up, Larissa finds her way to the dock where swarms of fireflies transport her to the same patch of land in 1912 where she witnesses her ancestors come under a curse that would haunt their family for generations. After several more trips back through time seeing subsequent generations of her family, Larissa discovers the source of the curse and needs to end it before it affects her mother and unborn baby sister.

I loved the atmosphere of the book, it felt like I was transported to a summer in the south. The author did a really good job with the 1912 scenes too, I was getting a total "Gone With The Wind" vibe from them (and yes I know GWTW was Civil War era), particularly the scenes with Anna and her Uncle Edgar. I especially liked how the author included southern dialect complete with French and Creole references, it added to the authenticity.

The book has some good themes too, such as giving someone a second chance like Larissa does for Alyson after the accident, and about how wrong it is to take something that doesn't belong to you.

I really appreciated the ending, it went exactly how I felt it should.

A wonderful read with excellent atmosphere and setting; plus who wouldn't love a kids book about time travel via fireflies and cursed dolls?

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the illustration and the blue and purple colour scheme, very eye-pleasing.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Graduation Day - Joelle Charbonneau

Title: Graduation Day (Book Three of The Testing series)
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 19, 2014
Finished: September 25, 2014

From the inside cover:

With the United Commonwealth teetering on the brink of all-out civil war, this is the moment to lead that the gifted student and Testing survivor Cia Vale has trained for.

Having discovered the brutal truth behind The Testing, she has vowed to end it once and for all. As Cia plunges through layers of deception and danger, she must risk the lives of those she loves most and gamble on the loyalty of her lethal classmates.

The stakes are higher than ever - lives of promise cut short or fulfilled; a future ruled by fear or hope - in this electrifying conclusion to Joelle Charbonneau's epic Testing trilogy.

Ready or not...it's Graduation Day.

After reading The Testing and Independent Study, this quickly became my new favourite trilogy. Now that it's ended, I can safely say I was impressed by every book in the series, including this final one, even though the tone and pacing of this last book is very different from the first two.

Graduation Day picks up where the last book left off, Cia knows that the leader of the rebels who are trying to stop the Testing isn't really interested in stopping the Testing, and that the whole plot is a rouse to eliminate the opposition. So when Cia uses her connection as the President's intern to relay this news, the President charges her with a new task: to kill those who are responsible for the Testing in order to make sure she will succeed where the rebels will not. So Cia goes about formulating her plan, angsting over whether she can actually kill someone (but realizing it needs to be done or else the Testing will never end), recruiting classmates to help her, testing the loyalty of those classmates, and executing the plan, all while avoiding detection by the university officials.

The Testing and Independent Study were very action-packed books, there's the anguish of the demanding school tests and homework, and the back-breaking physical tests. Graduation Day is very much a slower paced book because it focuses on a psychological battle of wills. The ending is very much a mind-screw where Cia questions everything she had been made to believe and her father's words of trusting no one ring true.

The only thing I have issues with is the notion the book puts forth that leaders need to be prepared to make 'difficult decisions' (aka kill people) to do what ultimately needs to be done. Spoiler alerts ahead!! Although Cia only kills in self-defense and another character does the outright killing for her, the only way to stop the Testing was for Cia to kill someone (to prove they don't need the Testing to see if a candidate can make difficult decisions since Cia was recommended to fail but they passed her as a test). I'm all for presenting the idea that leaders need to make 'difficult decisions' such as putting the needs of the many over the needs of the few when it comes down to it, but to go so far as to advocate killing first over say, exposing the offending party to the public and letting the legal system have a crack at punishment, or at least trying other methods before just saying "yup, so and so needs to die", just doesn't sit right with me. So if what I wrote above doesn't sit right with your moral code either, you might want to think twice about recommending this particular instalment.

Good ending to the series, but I had issues with some of the moral points raised in the book.

Thoughts on the cover:
Keeping with the theme of the previous two book covers, this one uses Raffe's symbol of the double lightning bolts with a purple colour scheme.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Beast Within - Serena Valentino

Title: The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince
Author: Serena Valentino
Publisher: Disney Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 215 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: September 18, 2014
Finished: September 19, 2014

From the inside cover:

The tale is as old as time: a cruel prince is transformed into a beast. A lovely maiden comes into this monster's life. He is transformed by her compassion, and the love he feels for her in return. The two live happily ever after.

But any tale, especially one as storied as Beauty and the Beast's, has been told many different times, and in many different ways. No matter which version one hears, the nagging question remains: what was it that transformed the prince into the beast we are introduced to?

This is one version, pulled from the many passed down through the ages. It's a story of vanity and arrogance, of love and hatred, of beastliness, and of course, of beauty.

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I'm a huge Beauty and the Beast fan. From the original fairy tales, to the Disney version, to creative retellings; I love them all. So of course, when I found out that Disney was making a book that explores the Beast's past as the Prince before the curse, I was all over it. The author is seemingly writing these in a series examining the untold tales of Disney villains (though the Beast doesn't exactly fit the villain motif), she previously did an instalment on the evil queen from Snow White that was well received. That is why reading this particular book was so incredibly painful; her other work received praise, which made me wonder what the heck went wrong here.

The story begins with Belle imprisoned in the Beast's castle as he reflects on his sorry state, wondering if he is even capable of the kind of love Belle showed towards her father by taking his place as prisoner. Then by a series of flashbacks we see the man the Beast once was. The Prince is friends with Gaston, and the way the author worked this in actually made it believable that they grew up together. The Prince is engaged to Circe, the youngest of a group of four witches. When Gaston realizes that Circe is the daughter of a pig farmer and informs the Prince, the engagement is cancelled. Heartbroken, Circe and her sisters curse the Prince and his household, but contrary to the film the Prince doesn't immediately change into the Beast physically. The novel examines more of the psychological changes that occur as he continues on with his 'beastly' behaviour, paranoid that what Circe cast upon him will come to fruition. As the curse slowly becomes apparent with every horrible act the Prince commits, his household changes as well. Here is another difference from the film: where servants turn into household objects that everyone else can still see and interact with, the Prince sees them merely as inanimate objects, leaving him incredibly isolated. The ghastly statues in the castle seen in the film, while harmless to everyone else, actually come alive to torment the Prince. These are details that I actually enjoyed, and if the rest of book had simply kept up with these I would've had a different impression.

The writing is poor. The word 'butt-chinned' is used to describe Gaston; I'm shocked that appeared in a formal novel, especially one set in Romance-era France where a contemporary word like that wouldn't be used. The plot is disjointed and half the time I couldn't tell what the author was trying to focus on. First there's the Beast agonizing over Belle, then backstory on the Prince and Circe with lots of Gaston, then a lot of focus on Circe's sisters trying to sabotage everything between the Prince and the annoying Princess Tulip, then talk of Ursula (obviously the focus of the next book), and then bam back to the Beast and Belle falling in love and breaking the curse. Belle is not given much focus at all, which is fine if the book only examined the Beast's story, but then to talk about how the curse is broken without Belle's character development is misguided. There are inconsistencies between the book and the film that don't make sense. If Gaston and the Prince were friends, does he not recognize the castle he spent so much time in? How does Belle attend the Prince's ball at the castle pre-curse and not put two and two together later on when she's back there? If the Prince was cursed around 11-ish according to the film, then why is he seen pre-curse as a late teen trying to woo all the ladies?

Overall a disappointment, which is sad since I saw potential here.

Thoughts on the cover:
A very cool thing they did was to put the Prince's face on the actual cover underneath the Beast's on the dust jacket.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Queen of the Tearling - Erika Johansen

Title: The Queen of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 434 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy, Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 10, 2014
Finished: September 17, 2014

From the inside  cover:

An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut - the first novel in a trilogy.

Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom's haunted past...or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.

Long ago, Kelsea's forefathers sailed away from a decaying world to establish a new land free of modern technology. Three hundred years later, this feudal society had divided into three fearful nations who pay duties to a fourth: the powerful Mortmesne, ruled by the cunning Red Queen. Now, on Kelsea's nineteenth birthday, the tattered remnants of the Queen's Guard - loyal soldiers who protect the throne - have appeared to escort the princess on a perilous journey to the capital to ascend to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling.

Though born of royal blood and in possession of the Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea has never felt more uncertain of her ability to rule. But the shocking evil she discovers in the heart of her realm will precipitate an act of immense daring, throwing the entire kingdom into turmoil - and unleashing the Red Queen's vengeance. A cabal of enemies with an array of deadly weapons, from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic, plots to destroy her. but Kelsea is growing in strength, her steely resolve earning her loyal allies, including the Queen's Guard, led by the enigmatic Lazarus, and the intriguing outlaw known simply as "the Fetch."

Kelsea's quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun. Riddled with mysteries, betrayals, and treacherous battles, Kelsea's journey is a trial by fire that will either forge a legend...or destroy her.

This book received oh so much hype, mainly due to its kick-butt heroine, so I knew I had to check it out. There were a few things that bugged me, but overall the hype is well-deserved.

First off, I liked how the world-building was set up as a fantasy, but not quite. The founders of the Tear and the surrounding lands (collectively called New Europe) originally fled from our modern-day North America and Europe, escaping decimated lands. So this book is actually set in the future and meets a lot of the criteria of a dystopian novel as well as a fantasy. William Tear felt his society's downfall was due to technology, so he founded the Tearling without the use of technology. Unfortunately, that also meant the Tearling had a lack of trained medical professionals as well, and combined with the influence of God's Church (a thinly veiled reference to Catholicism) and the lack of mandatory education, the Tearling is an overly poor, illiterate, feudal society.

This is the world Kelsea finds herself inheriting. After being sent away as an infant and raised by Barty and Carlin Glynn in a remote cabin in the woods, Kelsea receives a balanced education and develops into a resourceful young woman quite the opposite of her late mother. She finds the Queen's Guards waiting to escort her back to the Keep on her nineteenth birthday, but most suspect she will be assassinated before she even gets there.

Kelsea is a great female protagonist: she's not drop-dead pretty or super skinny, she can wield a knife to defend herself (granted her weaponry skills can use some improvement), she sticks to her own moral code, she's a book nerd with an awesome library, and she's quite witty. The only thing that doesn't quite make sense to me is how amazingly well she adjusts to society after being exposed to only two people growing up. I know she read a lot and Barty and Carlin had different personalities, but there's no way she could seamlessly integrate the way she does, there would have to be bumps along the way...

I do appreciate the allusions to the consequences of a society that values religion above education.  God's Church in the Tearling is a powerful influence that forbids contraceptives and doesn't say anything against the degradation of the education system or the immorality of the monthly caravans of Tear citizens sold as slaves to Mortmesne. Printing presses aren't used, so all books from the pre-Crossing era are rare. One of the most touching scenes for me was when Kelsea retrieves all Carlin's books from the cabin and fills her mother's empty bookshelves in the Keep. The children of Kelsea's female workers and her guards are all sitting around reading, and Kelsea gets the inspiration to create libraries again. And props to the author for references to Tolkien and Harry Potter in Kelsea's library.

Excellent start to what seems like a great new series. Will definitely be picking up the subsequent books.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the black and gold colour scheme, other than that it looks like your typical fantasy cover with your token castle.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ruin and Rising - Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ruin and Rising
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 417 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 24, 2014
Finished: September 1, 2014

From the inside cover:

The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne. Now the nation's fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Aline will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova's amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling's secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter the understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction - and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she's fighting for.

I read both Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm last year and quite enjoyed the first and second books of the trilogy, so of course I was excited to get the conclusion. And then my excitement turned to deflated anger...

The story starts out well enough with Alina, Mal, and the rest (Tamar, Tolya, Genya, Nikolai etc.) managing to escape from the clutches of the Apparat and his followers underground due to the resurgence of Alina's powers. Then they go in search of the firebird to try to harness its powers before the Darkling can. Then towards the end after the firebird is found (not giving spoilers on that), things just come apart in the most spectacular fashion. Spoilers ahead, so a fair warning for everyone.

The Darkling is one of my favourite types of characters. A villain/antagonist that is a perfect mix of good and evil where you don't hate them to the point where you want them to die, but you know they need to be stopped or else everything is doomed. Plus, the scenes between him and Alina are just plain delicious dialogue-wise. So when he died in a pretty mediocre way it was disappointing, mostly because I thought the plot would've worked better if he and Alina just embraced their god-like powers together. And then Alina loses releases her powers to the citizens and Mal loses his amazing tracking skills, so they're both horribly boring and essentially go back to where they were before the first book even started. So here's a female protagonist with amazing powers greater than a god, and what happens? She reverts to mediocrity to end up with the annoying boy who had issues being there for her when she was at her best but no problems being with her when she's no better than him.

I enjoyed the series but the conclusion was disappointing, especially coming from a feminist perspective.

Thoughts on the cover:
The continuity goes on in the third cover, this time in red hues with the castle and the firebird.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts - R. J. Palacio

Title: 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts (Companion book to Wonder)
Author: R.J. Palacio
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Nonfiction
Started: August 26, 2014
Finished: August 27, 2014

From the back cover:

Inspired by the unforgettable bestseller Wonder, here are 365 precepts - principles to live by - that will enlighten, engage, inspire, comfort, and challenge readers every day of the year. There's something for everyone here, with words of wisdom drawn from popular songs, great works of literature, inscriptions on Egyptian tombs fortune cookies, characters who appeared in Wonder, and over 100 readers, who sent author R.J. Palacio their own precepts.

This beautifully designed keepsake is a celebration of kindness, hopefulness, the goodness of human beings, the power of people's wills, and the strength of people's hearts.

As many of you know, I read Wonder last year and loved it to teeny tiny pieces. Since then I've talked to many local teachers who have read it to their classes, and have even read it to my own class of grade 5s, and every time the consensus is that the kids love it, they stare in rapt attention while you're reading it and complain when it's time to put the book down, it's a phenomenon. So when I heard the author was coming out with this book, I literally squealed as I was pre-ordering it.

This book is a companion to the original novel. The author writes as Mr. Thomas Browne, the English teacher Auggie and company had in Wonder who decides to compile a book of his famous precepts (principles to live by). There are 365 of them here: some from the book, most from history, literature, modern-day figures, etc.; and even some sent in from readers (including a few from Canada, yay!) There are also written pieces done in the voice of Mr. Browne in the beginning and in between each month where he contemplates ideas and gives updates on the kid characters from Wonder (Julian even apologizes to Auggie via letter).

My favourite "month" of quotes so to speak is October's. There are ones from Victor Hugo, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Hellen Keller, Carl Sagan, Voltaire, Dr. Seuss, it's a lovely modge-podge of goodness. My favourite essay from Mr. Browne is the one after November where he discusses the idea of the four virtues (Wisdom, Justice, Courage, Temperance) and has his class weigh in on which characters from literature best embody these ideals.

I used to collect famous quotes when I was a teenager and even compiled them in a book just like this one (not as nice as this one admittedly), and using quotes as writing prompts or for assignments is something many English teachers like myself tend to do. This book is perfect for teachers looking for assignment starters or prompts for bell work, and for readers who adored Wonder and the idea of Mr. Browne's precepts.

Just read it, it's good, I promise. I could even see people buying these as gifts for the holidays, it's that type of book that has appeal.

Thoughts on the cover:
A different shade of blue than the Wonder cover, but includes Auggie's face. It's a very well put together book, very pretty.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Whisper - Chris Struyk-Bonn

Title: Whisper
Author: Chris Struyk-Bonn
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: August 16, 2014
Finished: August 23, 2014

From the back cover:

In the not-too-distant future, in a society that kills or abandons anyone with a disability, Whisper has found a loving family far from the world's cruel gaze. When she is ripped from her forest home and forced to become her brutal father's house slave, her only solace is her music. Whisper has all but given up hope of ever feeling safe or loved. Then she is sent to the city, to Purgatory Palace, where other "rejects" gather. Could it be that home and love are closer than she thought?

This one had an interesting premise, so I picked it up. Although the story is not a typical dystopian that involves a group of revolutionaries overthrowing a corrupt government that oppresses the people, the story does involve a girl that manages to maintain her human dignity at the mercy of a society that considers her barely above dirt.

In a futuristic society that is seemingly on the outskirts of a first-world nation (distinguished university nearby, radio reports about the Dow Jones), increasing numbers of people are born with disabilities and deformities. Boys are kept more often because they are valued, while "reject" girls are either killed outright or abandoned. Whisper, born with a cleft palate, was lucky; she was raised by elderly Nathanael in a camp intended for children like her. After her mother stops her annual visit and later dies, Whisper is reclaimed by the same father who tried to murder her just after her birth. When her presence at her family's home proves more a nuisance than help, she is directed to beg on the streets by playing her violin. She is then discovered by a university music professor who recognizes her gift, giving her a place at the university to study. But will Whisper be accepted there?

There were several questions that weren't fully answered but more hinted at. Why are there more children born with disabilities and deformities? Why don't the families pursue surgery to correct their children's issues? Why was Whisper still ostracized amongst the educated populace of the university? There wasn't a lot of background information given here that would help answer those questions, so I would've appreciated more of that. The story is marketed as dystopian but it really could take place in  modern times or the recent past, I'm sure there are stories of girls like Whisper that come out of third world countries that wouldn't surprise me.

The story itself, despite the lack of background information and more typical dystopian elements, is amazing. Whisper's experiences show how children born with deformities in this world are viewed and treated, and even has an example of a young man with a developmental disability (cognitive delays) whose family manages to keep him home while not invoking the wrath of the village because his issues aren't immediately visible. Whisper is subjected to subhuman treatment, at one point forced to sleep in a doghouse, and barely escapes sexual slavery; and yet the educated populace living in the same city have no idea this is going on. The story comes as a punch to the gut purely because you know circumstances like these happen everyday, that people unfortunate enough to be born in a different country with a disability, into families without money to pay for surgery to correct it, are treated horribly. Whisper gives these experiences a very human story: readers feel her shame over being treated like a dog, her stress in trying to please her father to keep herself alive, her determination to make people see her real self without her veil.

A very realistic and heart-breaking story about what happens when we view a specific part of our populace as subhuman.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they used a veil on the cover model just like Whisper herself uses, and including the little carved violin around her neck was a great touch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kids Are Weird: And Other Observations from Parenthood - Jeffrey Brown

Title: Kids Are Weird: And Other Observations from Parenthood
Author: Jeffrey Brown
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 108 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Parenting
Started: August 20, 2014
Finished: August 20, 2014

From the back cover:

Eisner Award-winning author of the bestselling Darth Vader and Son and Vader's Little Princess Jeffrey Brown brings his perceptive humour to everyday parenting, capturing the hilarious, sweetly weird moments parents everywhere experience in the adventures of raising a child.

The author's "Darth Vader and Kids" books as I call them are well-loved in this house, I've given them as presents to my husband for Father's Day for two years in a row (with the brand new Goodnight Darth Vader book going in his stocking for Christmas, shhhh!). So when I saw he was releasing a generic parenting graphic novel, I figured it was a no-brainer. Unfortunately this particular book didn't make as much of an impression on me as his Darth Vader books.

Perhaps I'm just a huge geek and parenting anecdotes just seem funnier when experienced by the Sith Lord, but while this particular book definitely had it's weird episodes, the weirdness seemed to cross the boundary from "quirky but totally cute" to "so weird and quirky it makes you give the kid the side-eye." Most of the anecdotes just weren't all that funny. I'm sure they're funny to the author in the same way everything my 3-year-old does is hilarious to me, but at least I can admit that not everyone is going to be enamoured with my kid's quirks the way I am.

The image above is one part I did giggle at though, because let's face it, kids embarrassing parents is always funny.

The art style is great just like his other books, I noticed he tends to put a lot of detail into his backgrounds.

Didn't make as much of an impression as the author's Darth Vader books, which if you haven't read those or bought them for the dad in your life, you need to go do that now. I'll wait...

Thoughts on the cover:
Very bright colour scheme used here, if nothing else it's really eye-catching.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Girl in Reverse - Barbara Stuber

Title: Girl in Reverse
Author: Barbara Stuber
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: August 14, 2014
Finished: August 14, 2014

From the inside cover:

When Lily was three, her mother put her up for adoption, then disappeared without a trace.Or so Lily was told. Lily grew up in her new family and tried to forget her past. But with the Korean War raging and fear of "commies" everywhere, Lily's Asian heritage makes her a target. She is sick of the racism she faces, a fact her adoptive white parents won't take seriously. For Lily, war is everywhere - the dinner table, the halls at school, and especially within her own skin.

Then her brainy little brother, Ralph, finds a box hidden in the attic. In it is a baffling jumble of broken antiques - clues to her past left by her "Gone Mom." Lily and Ralph attempt to match these fragments with rare Chinese artifacts at the art museum. She encounters the artistic genius Elliot James, who attracts and infuriates Lily as he tries to draw out the beauty of her golden heritage. Will Lily summon the courage to confront her own remarkable creation story? The real story, and one she can know only by coming face-to-face with the truth long buried within the people she thought she knew best.

Between the time period of the early 50s during the Korean War, and the fact that the protagonist is of Asian descent (turns out later she's actually biracial), I knew I'd be picking this up.

It's 1951 in Kansas City, Missouri at the height of the Korean War. Lillian was born in 1934, then placed for adoption by her mother in 1937, shortly after which she was adopted by the Firestones. Lily is of Chinese background, a fact that her parents try to ignore rather than acknowledge, even when Lily becomes the victim of racist taunts as a child during the WWII years and then later as a teenager when the Korean War breaks out. When Lily's 11-year-old brother Ralph finds a box in their attic full of Lily's belongings from the orphanage before her adoption, it peaks both their interests in Lily's origin story. Through some interesting detective work and visits to the nearby art museum complete with an expert in Chinese art, Lily and Ralph piece together who Lily's birth mother is, why she came to the US, why she placed Lily for adoption, and even who her birth father is. As a side plot, Lily has encounters with Elliot, a boy with a talent for art, who asks her to pose for him. He ends up giving Lily a drawing that turns all the political cartoons her classmates have been using as their racist fodder back on the kids themselves (it's very clever, I'll let you read it).

The story starts out slow but quickly picks up once Lily and Ralph investigate the items in the box. I loved Ralph, he's a cute, smart little kid who steals every scene he's in. I was happy to see that the romance element was not the focus of the book, but what was there was very sweet. I think the overwhelming message of the book ends up being about the difficulties of adoption, especially trans-racial adoption during a less tolerant time (but it's still very relevant today since trans-racial adoptees still have lots of issues). The fact that Lily's parents do not acknowledge her Asian heritage and struggles with racism due to it are highlighted and shown as a negative thing for them to do as her parents, which was nice to see. There's even a heart-felt talk between Lily and her mom about why they adopted her if they were just going to ignore this huge part of her, it doesn't really resolve itself but there's the feeling that they're beginning to understand each other. I like that it didn't end happily right off the bat, because these issues are often ongoing in real life and sometimes aren't ever resolved.

A coming of age story that's an interesting look back in time with a likeable protagonist. The themes of adoption and it's difficulties, particularly trans-racial adoption, really stand out and make the book relatable to modern times as well.

Thoughts on the cover:
The green-tray tinge to the cover is pleasing for some reason, and the ink outlines of the Chinese dragons along the bottom are a nice touch.