Friday, January 31, 2014

The Shade of the Moon - Susan Beth Pfeffer

Title: The Shade of the Moon (Final in the Life As We Knew It series)
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Publisher: Harcourt, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 295 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Apocalyptic Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Started: January 29, 2014
Finished: January 31, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

It's been more than two years since Jon Evans and his family left Pennsylvania, hoping to find a safe place to live, yet Jon remains haunted by the deaths of those he loved. His prowess on a soccer field has guaranteed him a home in Sexton, the well-protected enclave he entered with his stepmother, Lisa, and her son, Gabe, using the three safe-town passes they were given. But Jon is painfully aware that a missed goal, a careless word, even falling in love, can jeopardize his life and that of his sister, Miranda, who lives outside the walls of Sexton. When everything he values is at stake, can Jon risk doing what is right in a world gone so terribly wrong?

Review:
I fell in love with this series years ago when i first came across it. Life As We Knew ItThe Dead and the Gone, and This World We Live In are the first three, and when I saw this new instalment listed I jumped on it like you wouldn't believe.

The final book takes place a few years after the group from the first three books leave the east coast and travel inland. Jon, Lisa, and Gabe live in Sexton, the enclave they got into using Alex's passes. Sexton and the community just outside of it, White Birch, are very divided. Sexton is made up of the privileged clavers and the "grubs" of White Birch are lucky if they can get jobs in Sexton as workers and domestic servants. Clavers know the grubs outnumber them, so they keep them under their collective thumb at any opportunity, treating them as second-class citizens at best, and near slaves at worst. Grubs have no amenities, struggle to find food, and work in hazardous conditions; practically every social nicety, safety net, and civil right have disappeared. The line between human decency and unspeakable cruelty becomes blurred as violence breaks out between the communities. Jon must decide whether he sides with his friends in Sexton or his family in White Birch, and what kind of man he really wants to be.

What I really liked in this book was that it started to show the early signs of being a dystopia rather than just a post-apocalyptic scenario. We can clearly see the lines being drawn between groups, and how things begin to escalate from just kind of disliking the "other"to full on treating the other as subhuman.

There's a plethora of heavy material in this book: lots of violence and death (pretty graphic at some points), rape scenes, plus triggers for infant loss and kidnapping, so be warned. I was actually kind of surprised at the amount of content...maybe I'm getting old...

Recommendation: 
Excellent conclusion to a series that doesn't really have an easy, happy end. Beware of all the questionable content listed above if you're a sensitive reader.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuation from the previous covers, this time showcasing Sexton beneath the moon.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Anastasia - Carolyn Meyer

Title: Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess, Russia, 1914
Author: Carolyn Meyer
Publisher: Scholastic, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 210 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: January 23, 2014
Finished: January 28, 2014

Summary:
From the back of the book:

"The palace doors are locked. We are prisoners."

Thirteen-year-old Anastasia is the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, ruler of Russia. Anastasia is used to to a life of luxury; her major concerns are how to get out of her detested schoolwork to play in the snow, go ice-skating, or have picnics. She wears diamonds and rubies, and every morning her mother tells her which matching outfit she and her three sisters shall wear that day. It's a fairy-tale life - until everything changes with the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany. As Russia enters WWI, hunger and poverty grow among the peasants, and soon they are not pleased with their ruler. While the tsar is trying to win a war and save the country, the citizens are turning on the royal family. When her father and the rest of her family are imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, suddenly Anastasia understands what this war is costing the people. In the pages of her diary, Anastasia chronicles the wealth and luxury of her royal days, as well as the fall from power and her uncertain fate.

Review:
This is actually a reissue of one of the books from Scholastic's Royal Diaries series from circa 2000. I remember seeing them years ago and never picked them up, but was interested in the concept. This instalment in particular is another one of the books I've picked up to save for my daughter, named for the famous Anastasia, so she can learn about her namesake when she's older.

The book is written in diary style narrated by Anastasia beginning at the start of 1914 when she is not quite thirteen, to the middle of 1918 just before her 17th birthday. The first few months of the diary chronicle normal everyday life for the royal family, then in the summer of 1914 when WWI breaks out things change and the family needs to sacrifice for the war effort (though obviously their lives are still luxurious compared to the rest of Russia's citizens). Then the tone changes drastically in March 1917 when revolutionaries take over Petrograd/St. Petersburg, force the tsar to abdicate, and imprison the royal family. The diary ends in May 1918 just as Anastasia and the rest of her siblings join her parents and sister Marie in Ekaterinburg in Siberia, their last place of imprisonment before their death in July 1918.

One of the things that stands out in this book compared to other books on Anastasia (and narrated by her) is that this author truly nailed Anastasia's voice in my opinion. Anastasia was very silly and mischievous, and though raised as a royal, that part of her personality shines through in all historical accounts. Right from the beginning, the author writes Anastasia's voice as bit defiant, humorous, and almost like a lady-like version of the class clown.

Secondly, the author certainly did her homework. The novel is incredibly well-researched, everything checks out from my own research and what I know to be true; plus at the end of the book there are photos, family trees, glossaries, historical notes, plus notes on the Russian calendar at the time vs. the modern calendar (which helps explain why the diary is authentically written with two sets of dates).

Recommendation:
A great piece of historical fiction written in a format that's appealing to middle grade readers. Very authentic in terms of Anastasia's voice while narrating as well as the historical content in general.

Thoughts on the cover:
This was the original cover for the edition when it first came out in 2000, so the one pictured at the start of the review is a revised cover. Between the two, I greatly prefer the new one; though the girl drawn there does look a little too much like a doll for my liking, but it definitely does have a more mature and sophisticated look for the novel. The image in the old cover is based directly off several  historical photographs I've seen, but I have to credit the artist of the new cover for getting certain parts just right. Though Anastasia's hair was more blond than red, they did get the wave in the hair right, as well as the bangs. The dress looks very much like period clothing, plus the pearls are a nice touch. Complete with the dark background the whole thing just comes together nicely.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy - Karen Foxlee

Title: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Publisher: Random House, January 28 2014 (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 227 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: January 20, 2014
Finished: January 23, 2014

Summary:
From the back of the book:

The North Wind doth blow and we shall have snow.

Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister, Alice, are still grieving for their mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it never stops snowing. On her very first day exploring the museum, Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty, the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting a long time for Ophelia's help.

As Ophelia embarks on an incredible adventure to rescue the boy, everything she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy's own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world.

A story within a story, this modern-day fairy tale is about the power of friendship, courage, and love-and the importance of never giving up.

Review:
I signed up for an ARC of this as soon as I saw the pre-release hype email in my inbox. I'm always up for a good fairy tale retelling, especially a less common one like The Snow Queen.

This version is more unique than the typical retellings of The Snow Queen. Instead of the usual "boy is seduced by Snow Queen, his heart turns to ice and becomes her crony; his childhood female friend goes on journey to find and redeem him" thing, this story follows 11-year-old Ophelia and her discovery of the Marvelous Boy, an eternal child more than 300 years old who was chosen by wizards to slay the Snow Queen. But the boy is locked in the museum and guarded, so it is up to Ophelia to find the keys to unlock both the door to the boy's prison, and also the sword that can slay the Snow Queen. The figure of the boy that falls under the Snow Queen's spell in this version is actually Ophelia's older sister, Alice.

Ophelia's journey includes snow leopards, ghost girls that had their innocence sucked clean by the Snow Queen, Misery Birds, and wolves...all without leaving the museum building, which were really incredible scenes to read. The writing is sophisticated yet simple, it reads like an old-fashioned fairy tale in terms of the language.

Ophelia is your typical unhero turned hero, she believes more in science than magic, she's got some serious self-esteem issues which are compounded in the wake of her mother's death, and she's an asthmatic with glasses and braids. She was a little hard to cheer on in the beginning since she needed soooo much coaxing, but Ophelia grew on me.

Recommendation:
In terms of Snow Queen retellings, my favourite is still Breadcrumbs, but Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy gets some serious credit from me purely because it deviates from the typical story and has some spectacular writing.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the style and colour scheme, and how the Marvelous Boy and Ophelia are illustrated exactly like they're written.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Smartest Kids in the World - Amanda Ripley

Title: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
Author: Amanda Ripley
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: January 13, 2014
Finished: January 15, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

How do other countries create "smarter" kids?

In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they've never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy.

What is it like to be a child in the world's new education superpowers?

In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, fifteen, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, eighteen, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, seventeen, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

Through these young informants, Ripley meets battle-scarred reformers, sleep-deprived zombie students, and a teacher who earns $4 million a year. Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many "smart" kids a few decades ago. Things had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.

A journalistic tour-de-force, The Smartest Kids in the World is a book about building resilience in a new world-as told by the young Americans who have the most at stake.

Review:
The reason why I picked this one up is pretty obvious. As a teacher I have my own theories on how to improve education, and am very curious on others' views too, especially those not in the education field. I usually find the opinions of those not directly involved in education are more amusing than helpful, purely because those people have no idea how the system is run and what is reasonable and what isn't. However, for a journalist, the author hits on a couple of key points throughout her book.

The author follows three teenagers as they spend a year as exchange students in three of the modern education superpowers: Kim to Finland, Eric to South Korea, and Tom to Poland. In addition to the three main kids, she also surveyed hundreds of exchange students (both Americans going overseas and overseas kids going to America) about their experiences and includes it in the book. When you add in all the education studies and research the author throws in as well, it's a pretty loaded book.

Obviously the state of education in Canada is different from the American statistics given by the author. We rank fairly well (usually in the top ten) in reading, math, and science, as well as the PISA scores mentioned in the book; we hammer critical thinking concepts into our kids' heads from the time they're in the primary grades. Similar criticisms between us and the States are that our class sizes could be smaller, we're facing cuts to special education services, and we have a big sports culture.

There are a couple of points where I absolutely agree with the author. I think our culture is at times anti-intellectual and teachers don't get the respect they should. Some teachers are remarkably well trained, but even up here there's a hierarchy amongst those educated in Canadian teacher's colleges where standards are higher and those trained in American schools where standards aren't as high. There are families out there that make it obvious that they value sports over the academic aspect of school, I regularly see kids taking off 1-2 days a week regularly due to tournaments, which irks me to no end. I think kids could stand to be more rigorous and self-disciplined...too many of them are just plain lazy and don't do near the amount of work required to achieve a certain grade, to the point where grades are actually devalued.

There are a couple things that I didn't see in the book that I would've liked to see....like the state of special education and to what extent spec ed kids were assessed via PISA. I know with our spec ed cuts a lot of kids are losing out on educational assistants that they require for that one-on-one help that regular teachers just can't provide in a class of 30 kids. I know in Asian countries (like South Korea that's mentioned a lot in the book) spec ed kids aren't usually integrated in regular schools like we do here, which could explain why scores are amazingly high in those countries. I would have liked to see a more varied list of countries where exchange students went to. Poland, Finland, and South Korea are as different as they come, but I'd still like to see more than just three countries as the main anecdotes.

Recommendations:
If you're in the education field or are just really interested in it, give this a read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the flags integrated into a rubix cube.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Relic: The Books of Eva - Heather Terrell

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

Title: Relic: The Books of Eva
Author: Heather Terrell
Publisher: Soho Teen, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 277 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: January 6, 2014
Finished: January 10, 2014

Summary: 
From the inside cover:

When Eva's twin brother, Eamon, falls to his death just a few months before he is to participate in The Testing, no one expects Eva to take his place. She's a Maiden, slated for embroidery classes, curtseys, and ultimately a marriage befitting the daughter of of a ruler of the Aerie. But Eva insists on honouring her brother by becoming a Testor. After all, she wouldn't be the first Maiden to Test, just the first in 150 years.

Eva knows the Testing is no dance class. Gallant Testors train train for their entire lives to search icy wastelands for Relics: artifacts from an era once known as the 21st century, the corrupt Tech-worshipping age that drowned in the Healing. Out in the Boundary lands, Eva draws on the lifetime of training she received in a matter of weeks from Lukas-her servant, a Boundary native, and her closest friend now that Eamon is gone. Maybe even more than that.

But there are threats in The Testing beyond what Lukas could have prepared her for. And no one could have imagined the danger Eva unleashes when she discovers a Relic that shakes the Aerie to its core.

Review:
I picked this up completely based on the summary, I hadn't heard a thing about this title prior to seeing it on my library's list of new additions; and I think that's a shame because I throughly enjoyed this book (first in a series) and am not-so-patiently waiting for the next instalment.

Relic opens 241 years after the Healing, a massive flood that destroyed most of the 21st century world as we know it, leaving behind a small group of survivors in the New North arctic lands. This new society, called the Aerie, rejects technology and outlines their religious and moral practices in a document called The Lex. Every ten years they have the Testing, where they choose a new leader by sending off all interested 18-year-olds from the founding families to travel to the far-reaches of the ice caps in the arctic ocean. If they survive that journey, they must uncover objects from before the Healing long frozen in the ice and compose a Chronicle about what the Aerie can from the blasphemous peoples who perished. Eva is supposed to be a Maiden, trained in the womanly arts like all other girls; while her brother trains with the other Gallants for the Testing. When he dies while trying to scale the Ring, Eva decides to take Eamon's place as a Testor.

I really liked Relic for various reasons, one being that the premise was original. We've all seen the stories where a girl takes a man's place in a male-dominated profession/event, but having it take place in the Arctic rather than generic forest-y fantasy land was a plus in my book. Plus, the idea of the characters having to uncover artifacts from the bygone era and actually try to piece together exactly what they were was remarkably well-written in terms of how realistic it could actually be; Eva's people claiming we worshipped a god named Apple that tried to deceive us with Mastercard and Prozac was freaking hilarious every time I read it.

The plot had a good pace and didn't drag; and there was a good balance between the initial problem of surviving the testing and finding the Relic, and the secondary problem that's introduced after Eva gets back. The characters are quite enjoyable, though the only one we really get to know is Eva, and later Lukas. The ending ends on a cliffhanger, and a doozy at that, so you'll be wanting the next one.

Recommendation:
A new, refreshingly unique dystopian series that is really promising, so you really need to give this one a read.

Thoughts on the cover:
For some reason whenever I look at the cover, it makes me think of stuff from a religious bookstore...maybe it's the bright light in the centre with that particular font for the title...so don't let that scare you off if I'm not the only one who gets that impression from the cover.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fortunately, The Milk - Neil Gaiman

Title: Fortunately, The Milk
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 113 pages
Genre: Children's Science Fiction/Fantasy
Started: January 5, 2013
Finished: January 5, 2013

Summary: 
From the inside cover:

"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this:

thummthumm.

I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."

"Hullo," I said to myself. "That's not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."


Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

Review:
I have to give my husband credit for this one, he actually bought it rather than me; which is really something, because kid lit is not something my husband actively seeks out in his reading material. Neil Gaiman is an author I really enjoy, but his kid's books are a bit of a hit and a miss for me. I loved Coraline but wasn't nuts over The Graveyard Book, but thankfully Fortunately, The Milk is pretty awesome.

The story starts off with a mother going to a conference, leaving the father to care for his son and daughter. After leaving to go to the corner store when they run out of milk, the father takes an insanely long time to get back. When he does, the kids ask what took him so long. What follows is a story about time machines, a talking stegosaurus, vampires, pirates, tribespeople making sacrifices to a volcano, aliens, and of course the bottle of milk.

It's a short little story, but it's hilarious (I think this is a case where the humour might appeal more to adults than kids) and completely ridiculous. Plus, the book is full of illustrations (every page is illustrated) that are just awesome and are integral to the story.

Recommendation:
If you're in for a short, funny story, give this one a read.

Thoughts on the cover:
Cover art by the guy who illustrated the interior of the book, and I like his art, ergo the cover rocks.

Friday, January 3, 2014

On Little Wings - Regina Sirois

Title: On Little Wings
Author: Regina Sirois
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Books), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 418 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: December 27, 2013
Finished: January 3, 2014

Summary: 
From the inside cover:

Jennifer is an only child, and so were her parents-at least that's what she thinks, until she finds an old photo in the back of one of her mother's books. The woman in the photo looks just like Jennifer, down to the smattering of freckles across her nose. And her mother refuses to talk about it.

Compelled to find answers, Jennifer embarks on a quest that takes her from the wheat fields of Nebraska to the fishing town of Smithport, Maine, home to the one person who can help her solve this family secret-the woman in the photo. But Jennifer learns that it takes the entire village of Smithport to piece together the story behind her mother's hidden past. She needs help from Nathan, the genius with the reluctant smile from across the cove; Little, the elderly town matriarch and former movie star; and The Jacks, three weathered fishermen who dabble in pyrotechnics. As Jennifer discovers the lost chapters of her mother's life, she unwittingly begins to write a few of her own.

Review:
First off, sorry this is the first review in 6 weeks; between an insanely busy period at work and Christmas, something had to give ^^;

On Little Wings is mainly a story about family secrets, issues, and relationships. Jennifer is a mature 16-year-old that has a wonderful relationship with her parents, until she finds a picture of a relative her mother claims she never had. When her mother refuses to talk about her newly discovered aunt Sarah, Jennifer decides to go to her mother's childhood home in Maine to meet her. After discovering the story behind why her mother vehemently refuses to speak of her sister, Jennifer hatches a plan to get her mother to travel to Maine. Along the way, Jennifer meets several interesting characters in Smithport and has quite the summer adventure. The events in this book manage to convince me all the more that if everyone had several years of therapy under their belt between the teenage and adult years we would run out of book plots since everyone would work out all their drama in therapy.

The book is well-written and one that will likely appeal to bibliophiles. I especially like how Sarah, Jennifer, and Nathan have their nightly tradition where they share a quote or lines of text that speaks to them; that's the stuff of my daydreams that I only wish would happen in my backyard.

Jennifer is an admirable character; she's mature and has a genuinely good relationship with both her parents. Even after discovering her mother's secret, she never resents or judges her mother, she just wants to know the truth. Little is an amazing old lady, she's spunky and ornery and I love that she is the driving force that sets everything in motion (hence the title relates to her). I'm not sure how to feel about Nathan, he's prickly and inconsistent and wasn't a great love interest, at least in my opinion.

Recommendation:
A great little read, especially if you're in the mood for a warm, summer beach setting in the midst of the below zero temperatures.

Thoughts on the cover:
Not your typical YA cover, but I like it.