Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ice - Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Ice
Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Publisher: McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 308 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 26, 2009
Finished: December 27, 2009

From the author's website:
When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.

Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back -- if Cassie will agree to be his bride.

That is the beginning of Cassie's own real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her -- until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.

I picked up this book as an after-Christmas present to myself while my husband and I were vacationing in our family's cottage in northern Ontario. As soon as I heard it was a modern retelling of the fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon", I knew I had to pick this up (I'm a sucker for fairy tales and retellings). The author makes the modern fairy tale believable: Cassie lives with her father in an arctic research station in Alaska where they study the local polar bear population. Cassie's mother is out of the picture, and her grandmother explained her absence with a fairy tale. The North Wind asked the Polar Bear King to bring him a daughter and in return that daughter would eventually be the Polar Bear King's wife. The daughter fell in love with a man and begged the Polar Bear King to take her to him. The Polar Bear King would not have an unwilling wife, and so the young woman offered the Polar Bear King her future child to be his wife. The North Wind was angry at his daughter for leaving him and in his anger swept her to the ends of the earth. Little does Cassie realize that the fairy tale her grandmother told her is true. On her 18th birthday, a massive polar bear appears to Cassie and comes to claim her as his wife. Cassie agrees, but only if the bear promises to free her mother from the troll's castle she has been imprisoned in for 18 years.

So amidst being angry at her father for not telling her the truth and not saving her mother, and angry at her mother for using her as a bargaining chip before she was ever born, Cassie goes to live with the Polar Bear King (called Bear), and learns of his realm and his magic. The way the world is explained uses a lot of Inuit myths and legends. Bear is actually a munaqsri (moon-awk-sree), a caretaker of souls that transfers them from the dying to the newly born. Munaqsri can alter matter and take the shape of the species they care for, so since Bear is the polar bear munaqsri, he takes the form of a polar bear (but can also take a human form). Part of the agreement for rescuing Cassie's mother from the troll's castle is that Bear was not allowed to let Cassie see his human face or tell her the reason why she couldn't. When Cassie betrays his trust and glimpses his human face, Bear is forced to leave his realm and marry the troll princess. Cassie must travel east of the sun and west of the moon to bring Bear back.

Okay, now for the good things: I loved how the author created the world and the concept of munaqsri, it made the magical concept spiritual. It echoed what my grandmother used to tell me as a child: if no one died, then there'd be no souls to pass on to newborn babies, that we need death for life to go on. The same happens in the book, if there is no soul to pass on to a baby as it's being born, the child will be stillborn. The author brings in munaqsri of other species in the second half of the book as Cassie makes her journey to rescue Bear and it's interesting to see how they all work together.

Cassie is a great character in the beginning. She sacrifices her life as she knows it for the chance that her mother will be returned to her, risking everything on the chance that her grandmother's fairy tale is real. She knows what she wants and does what she can to get it. Bear is a likable character, very sweet and charming in a sincere way. I wish we had seen more development of Cassie's parents, especially her mother, but then again the story's not really focused on them.

What I wasn't nuts about: the plot is wonderful in the first half and suffers a bit I think in the second part. So much happens so fast in the few pages bridging the first and second parts that it's almost as if you're reading another novel altogether. Cassie's personality is different too, and I think there wasn't enough development to show that change. Cassie and Bear showcase a really sweet romance, but I didn't see enough evidence of that affection, the author simply tells us in a few sentences that Cassie's feelings have changed and she cares for Bear now. All in all, the story feels a little rushed from the second half onward after so much detail and care taken in the first half. In spite of these things, I really enjoyed Ice, the tale is set up in a way to be believable and the world created is just fantastic.

If you're looking for a good modern fairy tale retelling that doubles as a supernatural romance, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like my covers shiny. This one is no exception, the font for the title is shiny as well as image itself (it works well with the arctic setting and the ice and snow imagery). The colours are well-chosen: purple, white, and several shades of blue. The image of Cassie is actually how I thought she would look, I love how you can clearly see her red hair and green eyes.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Word Nerd - Susin Nielsen

Title: Word Nerd
Author: Susin Nielsen
Publisher: Tundra Books, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 248 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: Monday, December 21, 2009
Finished: Thursday, December 24, 2009

From the publisher's website:
Twelve-year-old Ambrose is a glass-half-full kind of guy. A self-described "friendless nerd," he moves from place to place every couple of years with his overprotective mother, Irene. When some bullies at his new school almost kill him by slipping a peanut into his sandwich - even though they know he has a deathly allergy - Ambrose is philosophical. Irene, however, is not and decides that Ambrose will be home-schooled.

Alone in the evenings when Irene goes to work, Ambrose pesters Cosmo, the twenty-five-year-old son of the Greek landlords who live upstairs. Cosmo has just been released from jail for breaking and entering to support a drug habit. Quite by accident, Ambrose discovers that they share a love of Scrabble and coerces Cosmo into taking him to the West Side Scrabble Club, where Cosmo falls for Amanda, the club director. Posing as Ambrose's Big Brother to impress her, Cosmo is motivated to take Ambrose to the weekly meetings and to give him lessons in self-defense. Cosmo, Amanda, and Ambrose soon form an unlikely alliance and, for the first time in his life, Ambrose blossoms. The characters at the Scrabble Club come to embrace Ambrose for who he is and for their shared love of words. There's only one problem: Irene has no idea what Ambrose is up to.

For those that remember, this is the very same book that was mentioned a couple weeks ago in a post of mine. I figured if I was going to defend children's books from helicopter parents that want every questionable book banned from the library, I'd better read the book in question. Thankfully for me, my opinion hasn't changed since reading it; this is a wonderful little book and it's going on my to-buy list for my classroom.

Ambrose is an amazingly real character. He doesn't act like the majority of 12-year-olds out there, but for the few I've taught that aren't like other kids, Ambrose fits the bill. He gets beat up, wears clothes too small for him, and his favourite pants are purple chords. His dad died before he was born, and because of that, his mother is very overprotective of him. When he is nearly killed by school bullies when they put a peanut into his sandwich, his mom has him stay home to do correspondence school. Bored out of his mind, he recruits the help of his landlord's ex-con son, Cosmo, to drive him to a local Scrabble Club when he discovers that he and Cosmo share a love of the game.

This book deals with very real issues for kids: single parent families, bulling, finding your place in the world, and building self confidence and standing up for yourself. I like how they handled Cosmo's drug problem and the issue of him being in prison. he's very honest in his attempts to be a better person, and although kids will learn that not every person who's been in prison or done drugs will change for the better, this is a case where a second chance is Cosmo's redemption. Cosmo's street smarts contrasts against Ambrose's 12-year-old sheltered ideals of the world, and both help each other become better people. Ambrose learns not to see the worst in everyone like his mom has taught him to, and Cosmo gets a cheerleader on his journey to turn his life around.

I love all the little Canadian references. The only channel Ambrose gets on his tv is CBC, so all the names of the shows pop up frequently. There is a bit of swearing and sexual references, but nothing a real-life 12-year-old hasn't heard before, I'd give this to a kid in grade 7 and up no problem.

If you were or are the weird kid in class or know a kid who is, read this! It's a cute little story of misfits finding their place in the world through Scrabble.

Thoughts on the cover:
This cover is really quirky and cute. The colours work really well with the black, and I love how they incorporated the little Scrabble points beside the letters of the title. The peanut-free logo is a nice touch as well. Love the image of Ambrose in his pom-pom hat.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Beautiful Creatures - Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

Title: Beautiful Creatures
Authors: Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 561 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: Friday, December 11, 2009
Finished: Monday, December 21, 2009

From the inside cover:
There were no surprises in Gatlin County.
We were pretty much the epicenter of the middle of nowhere.
At least, that's what I thought.
Turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong.
There was a curse.
There was a girl.
And in the end, there was a grave.

Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she's struggling to conceal her power, and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town's oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.

I picked this up in early December while I was book-shopping for my nephew's Christmas presents, and remembered that people were talking about this book and saying it was "going to be the new Stephenie Meyer". That normally would have put me off this book forever, but then I saw some people's first impressions (good ones) and decided to give this one a go. This book is quite long, almost 600 pages, which is why I took a little longer to finish it; but in the end I was quite happy with it.

Ethan Wate hates where he lives. The small-town mentality is starting to get to him, especially since his mother passed away and his father became a shut-in. Just when he thinks nothing will change in Gatlin, South Carolina, a new girl comes to school. Lena Duchannes, the niece of Old Man Ravenwood, is officially off-limits to everyone. Her uncle's rumoured to be a bit psycho, plus she's "not one of them" (gotta love small-town mentality). Ethan however, is inexplicably attracted to her (and not just in a love/lust way), and decides early on to choose the outsider over the rest of the town, no matter what the consequences. It's a cool little story complete with Casters (spell casters), magic, and star-crossed love.

Things I loved: a supernatural story told from the male's point of view instead of the female's, the fact that the girl is the one with said supernatural power, the Southern small town location, all the To Kill a Mockingbird references, Amma, and all the family trees.

I loved Ethan's narration, he's very real and very relatable as a character. Lena is very down-to earth, smart, and stands by her opinions (though she is slightly confused about some things). Amma, the Wate family's housekeeper and practically Ethan's grandmother, is a riot. I would read this book again just for Amma. Macon is a character I also loved, simply because he exceeded my expectations. Even the secondary characters are great simply because they exude that Southern feeling about them.

The plot's nothing to write home about. Perhaps it's because I watched a lot of Japanese anime in my university years and plot lines about forbidden love and (spoiler alert) reincarnated love/history repeating itself are so common that this just seems like another one of those types of stories. But although I felt the plot wasn't stellar, the details made it worth it. Lena's poetry, the flashbacks of the historical characters, the family trees; you can tell a lot of thought and love went into the creation of this book. I can't give away more about the plot without going into spoilers, so I'll leave it at that. Hopefully there will be a second book so we get to see what happens after the events at the end of the novel.

If you're ready for a supernatural romance where both the male and the female characters are sympathetically portrayed and you don't feel like yelling at them while you read (if you're the type to yell at characters like I do), then read this. If you want a story in a different setting with a lot of atmosphere, then definitely read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I really like this cover. Could be because I'm a sucker for all things shimmery, as well as purple (purple is an under-represented colour in book covers), but I really like it. The images of the trees shine in the light and add to the feel of the book. The script of the title is lovely, very bubbling and flowing.

The Sunday Salon (catching up on a Monday)

The Sunday Salon.com

Sorry about the late post, we had family Christmas parties all weekend, so needless to say we were slightly tired come Sunday evening.

Christmas is taking up much more of my time than it has in the past, perhaps its because we're in a house this year and are actually doing some entertaining. All my shopping is officially done, all the food is bought, and since classes got out on Friday, I'm off work for the next two weeks (a much-needed vacation). There were quite a few trips to bookstores for presents this year (my husband, 2 of my nephews, my uncle, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my friend), so books were on my to-buy list for anyone that doesn't hate reading, which isn't too many people in my family thankfully.

Since it is Christmas time, my reading is taking a back-seat to the family stuff and random outings that I don't get to do when I'm working. It took me forever to finish reading Beautiful Creatures, partly because it's a 500+page book and that I was only reading in 20-30 page increments when I did get to read cause I've been busy with other things. I'm going to do my write-up for Beautiful Creatures after this post, then I've got Word Nerd, and the Hunchback Assignments to keep my busy over the break, plus some other personal reading (Super Freakonomics) if I finish those two. The one good thing about the Christmas break is that even though there's new movies and video games as well as books to get through, I find I actually have enough time to balance between them all.

Merry Christmas (or happy whatever-you-celebrate) to everyone, see you after the holidays!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon

The Sunday Salon.com

This is a new type of post for me that is common among other book blogger communities where they post thoughts about their reading and other book-related things in general on a Sunday and call it the Sunday Salon. So here it goes...warning, book banning rant ahead.

I was reading the paper yesterday and came across this:


And I became very angry. There's nothing that bugs me more than an uptight parent trying to control what other people's children read. There was a similar story in my area last year around Christmas where a school board removed copies of The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman from it's school libraries purely because one parent had issues with some of the implied anti-Christianity themes (and the parent hadn't even read the book).

It got me thinking. Granted I'm not a parent yet, but I have teenage nephews that I've been giving books to since they were 9, and classrooms full of kids I walk into every day where I recommend books they should read. I know what books are and aren't appropriate for the kiddies and the teenagers. Every kid is different and no one knows that better than the parents, if you know there's certain material in a book (because you've seen it for yourself, not just because someone's told you so) that you know your kid can't handle, then take the necessary steps to direct your kid away from said book. Although, I've always been of the opinion that you shouldn't restrict kids from reading anything. If it's marketed as a children's book or a young adult book, and the kid falls into that age range, it's fair play. The important thing is for parents to be involved in what their children read, ask them what the book's about, and let them know that if they read about something they're not sure of to come to the parents and ask about it. My parents never restricted my reading when I was a kid, if I could physically read the words, it was mine to devour. But I also knew that if I had issues with anything I read, that I could come to them and talk about it.

The lady in the article was angry because her 12-year-old son got in trouble for using foul language, then he takes a book out from the library and sees the same language in it. Now the mother wants it revoked from the school library. Hello? The protagonist of the book is a 12-year-old boy, meaning it's a children's book geared towards the intermediate grades (12-13 years old). 12 year old boys swear, it's a fact of life. The world is not going to fall apart if your child reads a book with the word "boobs" in it. If you don't want your kid to swear, teach him that it's not appropriate to use that language at home or school. Just because a kid reads something in a book doesn't necessarily mean he's going to emulate that, and it's a parent's job to teach kids the difference between fantasy and reality. What happens in books, video games, movies, and television are all fun and games but it doesn't mean you go out and try to raise the dead because you saw it in a Simpsons episode.

I'm also of the opinion that no one can control what anyone's child reads other than your own. If you have an issue with Harry Potter or whatever other book, no one's holding a gun to your head or your child's head forcing you to read it. Just because you have a problem with it doesn't mean you can tell me that my child or my students can't read it either.

Thus ends my rant ^^;

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fire - Kristin Cashore

Title: Fire
Author: Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Dial Books, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 461 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 7, 2009
Finished: December 11, 2009

From the inside jacket:
It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young king Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men. This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the colour of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she has the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own. Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City. The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far from home, Fire begins to realize there's more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom. If only she weren't afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Normally I wouldn't review a sequel even if I read it. I figure if a person liked the first book they should like the second, third etc., provided the author's skills don't drop off the face of the earth (which has been known to happen in sequels). I made an exception for Fire because although it's the second book in Cashore's Graceling trilogy of novels, it's more of a companion book, taking place 30 years earlier in another kingdom with an entirely new set of characters (except one). You don't need to read Graceling to enjoy Fire, but with the inclusion of that one shared character, you won't get the full effect unless you read Graceling first.

Let's iron out a few key points: In Fire's world, there are humans and "monsters". Monsters can look like any ordinary animal except for their brilliant colouring. Like they say in the book, a grey horse is just a horse, but a horse the colour of sunset orange is a monster. Monsters will hunger for other monster flesh before going after humans, and their beautiful colours act almost like a hypnotizing effect that turns humans into blubbering fools. Human-shaped monsters have the ability to read and control minds, which is what Fire is. Her hair is her main area of control, which is why she keeps her hair bound in a wrap most of the time. Fire is trying to escape the legacy of Lord Cansrel, her monster father who was advisor to King Nax (current king's deceased father). Her father was a monster in all manner of the word, he enjoyed cruelty and encouraged Fire to do so also. Long story short, Fire's mother died in childbirth so she was spirited away to be looked after by a number of people in the north because her father couldn't look after her in King City. It's because of all those people that raised her that Fire has a kinder personality than her father and is reluctant to use her mind-control powers on others except in self-defense. Prince Brigan and King Nash (brothers) come and beg her to help them defeat the rebel armies by helping to interrogate captured spies. And here's where Fire's issue lies: she is reluctant to use her powers for fear she will become like her father, like most people assume she already is.

Fire is a very different book from Graceling. Fire is much darker story, where Graceling was a little more light-hearted. Fire is driven almost purely by the title character's quest to discover herself, whereas Graceling is balanced with character development and plot. Different, but not in a bad way.

I think the novel would fail in my eyes without Fire herself. The things she goes through, especially in the first part of the book shocked me. How would you feel if you were constantly under attack by monsters that wanted to rip you apart, and humans either want to rape you because they love you, or rape you because they hate you? Fire gets those reactions in both extremes. She is inhumanly beautiful and unless a person guards their mind against her, her beauty causes them to literally throw themselves at her. Talk about unwanted attention (you could analyze this as being an extremely exaggerated version of what women go through on a daily basis). The idea sounds contrite when I describe it, I know, but Cashore's writing makes it work with Fire. It makes Fire extremely sympathetic and likable when you see how she handles herself, and I think that's what carries this story. The plot itself is not amazing, your basic political turmoil that is resolved with the help of the main character, however the plot is much darker than in Graceling due to the horrors of war that Fire witnesses. This book is pegged as a "highly romantic" companion, but in truth, I don't see how it's "highly" romantic at all; the romance scenes were very low key, and I don't think the relationship was given the depth it should have had. I liked the romance in Graceling better, simply because it was witty and had more depth and development.

One area I wish had more development was about Cansrel, Fire's father. The flashback scenes with him were really intriguing, contrasting his fatherly love and devotion for Fire with his cruelty for everyone else. Aside from Fire, I think he was one of the better developed characters and I'm sad there wasn't more about him.

The one more thing that bugged me was Leck. Other than tying Fire to Graceling and being the creepy little bugger that he is, I didn't see a point in his showing up. It didn't really feel connected to the rest of the plot, just a hurried add-on to include him. There are a couple other things that bothered me, but I can't get into them because of spoilers, so read the book and tell me what you think.

So in the end after reading both books, I liked Graceling marginally better for those reasons above, but still really enjoyed reading Fire. The themes of everyone is a mix of good and evil, and parents don't define the children were really well-explored and made for an overall engrossing read. That saying, I am really looking forward to book 3, Bitterblue, and can't wait till it's released.

If you liked Graceling, you need to read Fire; you'll like it for different reasons, but you'll like it.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love this cover more than Graceling's because of it's colour scheme. The colour I believe is intended to be the shade of Fire's hair, and I love the blend of purple, red, pink, and orange. I also like Fire's face in the background, hidden so you don't see her eyes. This cover follows the theme set by Graceling with the weapon in the foreground and part of a face in the background.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The 39 Clues Book 6: In Too Deep - Jude Watson

Title: The 39 Clues Book 6: In Too Deep
Author: Jude Watson
Publisher: Scholastic, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Children's Adventure
Started: December 7, 2009
Finished: December 7, 2009

From the publisher:
Are some secrets better left buried? As Amy and Dan track the next clue to a remote corner of the world, they make shocking discoveries about the source of the Cahill's power and the mystery of their parents' deaths. And as the threat of the mysterious Madrigals grows real, one of the clue-hunters makes the ultimate sacrifice. Amy and Dan have to decide how much they're willing to risk, and what they are fighting for. Can they avenge their parents or are they following their fatal path?

For those of you not familiar with this series, let me bring you up to speed. Amy Cahill and her 11-year-old brother Dan are shocked at the death of their grandmother, Grace Cahill. Not only do they find out their family is more important than they ever thought possible-every famous historical figure was a member of one of the four Cahill family branches-but Grace's will offers all current Cahills a chance to hunt for the 39 Clues, clues that are the key to the family's secret. Rather than take the $1 million cop-out, Dan and Amy travel the world in search of the 39 Clues, unraveling the secrets of their parents' deaths along the way.

This little series was developed by Scholastic as a money-maker, no big discovery there. 10 Books, trading cards, and an online gaming component are all used in the real-life hunt for the 39 Clues. Readers get one clue for every book, one clue for every online mission they complete, and clues are also found attached (digitally) to a specific trading card (after registering the cards online). This is a huge project for Scholastic and they brought all the top children's book authors onto the project: Rick Riordan, Gordon Korman, and Margaret Peterson Haddix among others (each author writes a different book). The different authors don't affect the plot for the most part, but the different writing styles do sometimes take some getting used to.

I like this series even though I'm way out of their targeted age category. They're adventure books that teach history and geography at the same time, and are pretty fun to boot. My nephew and I read these together (I buy them, he borrows them), and they're great for reluctant readers, especially boys.

I like this particular book because we find out more about Dan and Amy's parents and who was responsible for their deaths. Amy gets a lot of character development, which was nice to see, she was starting to seem very two dimensional.

Modern day around-the-world adventures with psychotic relatives and supreme power at stake, what's not to like?

Thoughts on the cover:
These covers are getting much better as they go along. I love the turquoise colour scheme with the plane and the shark shadows done in that shiny plastic film.

Hamlet and Ophelia - John Marsden

Title: Hamlet and Ophelia
Author: John Marsden
Publisher: Harper Trophy Canada, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 228 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Shakespeare
Started: December 4, 2009
Finished: December 7, 2009

From the inside cover:
Coping with the death of his father and reeling from the marriage of his mother to his uncle, Hamlet has an encounter with his father's ghost, who reveals the truth: he was murdered--by his brother! Urged by his father to seek revenge, Hamlet is wracked with indecision and spirals into depression. It seems that not even his best friend, Horatio, nor his love interest, Ophelia, can help him. A visiting acting troupe inspires Hamlet to form a plan, but he cannot foresee the devastation that will occur.
Hamlet and Ophelia is a compelling read for teens and adults alike--sexy, sultry, spellbinding. In following the contours of Shakespeare's play, John Marsden has created a stunning tale that brings new life to a timeless classic.

I was very fortunate in high school-I had one of the best English teachers on the face of the planet. After hating Shakespeare in Grade 9 while suffering through The Merchant of Venice with a different teacher, he finally made me appreciate Shakespeare in Grade 10 when we did Julius Caesar with him. Although he taught me to appreciate Shakespeare for the usual reasons: themes that resonate hundreds of years later, humour (once you translate it into everyday English), excellent writing etc., I never really liked Shakespeare. That same English teacher taught us Hamlet in Grade 13 and to be honest, I'd rather have been reading something else other than more Shakespeare. This retelling of Hamlet made me love it. I kept reading to see what would happen, even though I already knew exactly what would happen. John Marsden has written a wonderful novel, changing the dialogue to be easily read but not conversational (sounds like a 19th century classic rather than Shakespearean English), staying true to the original plot, and even keeping some of the key lines. Marsden wrote "Tomorrow When the War Began", and was one of my favourite authors when I was in high school along with Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, and Patricia Wrede; so I knew that picking this up wouldn't be a mistake. Glad to see his writing is still excellent after a 10 year absence on my part.

For all those kids out there in Grade 12 who are made to suffer Hamlet just like I once was, or for the adults who'd really like to defy the stereotype of the person who forever hates Shakespeare, pick this up, I guarantee you'll find this version more to your liking than the original.

Thoughts on the cover:
The Canadian version of this novel has a different cover, as well as a different title. The original Australian version was called simply "Hamlet" and had the image of the famous skull as the cover. I must say I like our Canadian version better. Retitled "Hamlet and Ophelia", the cover has the image of Elsinore castle (well, part of it) and the barren lands surrounding it. This cover emphasizes the subtle ghastly qualities rather than being blunt with just the skull.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Marked - P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast

Title: Marked (Book 1 of The House of Night series)
Authors: P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 2, 2009
Finished: December 3, 2009

From the back cover:
Enter the dark, magical world of The House of Night, a world very much like our own, except here vampyres have always existed. Sixteen-year-old Zoey Redbird has just been Marked as a fledgling vampyre and joins the House of Night, a school where she will train to become an adult vampire. That is, if she makes it through the Change--and not all of those who are Marked do. It sucks to begin a new life, especially away from her friends, and on top of that, Zoey is no average fledgling. She has been chosen as special by the vampyre Goddess Nyx. Zoey discovers she has amazing powers, but along with her powers come bloodlust and an unfortunate ability to Imprint her human ex-boyfriend. To add to her stress, she is not the only fledgling at the House of Night with special powers: When she discovers that the leader of the Dark Daughters, the school's most elite group, is misusing her Goddess-given gifts, Zoey must look deep within herself for the courage to embrace her destiny--with a little help from her new vampyre friends.

Yes, yes, more vampires. Before I lose all academic credibility, let me explain why I picked up yet another vampire book. There are certain books I always see my students reading: one of the Twilight books, City of Bones, The Hunger Games (which pleases me to no end), and recently I've been seeing this particular series, The House of Night. Apparently everyone and their mother has read these books and I'm very late in jumping on the bandwagon, so I wanted to see if the start of the series lived up to it's hype.

First off, the vampyre (yes, spelt that way) universe created in this book is really well done. The authors even have a spiritual component to the whole thing, which I thought was nice since you never really see religion or spirituality involved in most vampire stories (from the vampire point of view). The characters are very believable and realistic: the fledgling characters at least sound exactly like teenagers you would hear while walking down a hallway in your average high school. The story is quite addictive, making it a very quick read. This is no ground-breaking piece of literature by no means, but it's a fun little romp with a creative plot (c'mon, vampire finishing school? how cool is that?)

One thing that irked me is the lack of numbering: please all authors, when you write a series where the titles aren't that distinctive, for the love of all things holy, number your books! This annoys the heck out of me; I tried to read this book twice previously but couldn't till now because I had picked up the wrong book from the library.

Fun story, a little heavy on the sexual references (including an oral sex scene), so definitely not for kids younger than high school age.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's black with a chick's face in the corner, pretty basic.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Gryphon Project - Carrie Mac

Title: The Gryphon Project
Author: Carrie Mac
Publisher: Puffin Canada, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 281 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction
Started: December 1, 2009
Finished: December 2, 2009

From the author's website:
Phoenix envies her brother Gryphon. The daredevil, gangrunning sports hero has all of his recons left: three more chances at life. But she is left with only one, and learns that her beloved brother is responsible for one of her deaths. When Gryphon himself has an accident, the governing body Chrysalis refuses to recon him, deeming his death to be a suicide. His gang’s code of silence makes it difficult to find out the details, but Phoenix is determined to unravel the mystery and save her brother.

In Gryphon and Phoenix's world, scientists have beaten death through Reconning, using cord blood and other stem cells to reconstruct flesh and bring a person back from the dead free of imperfections. Not everyone gets the three recons though, the author includes a caste system for all this: doctors, lawyers, politicians etc. get three; academics, accountants etc. get two; next level gets one, and the scum of the earth get no recons. There are also rules: suicides are not reconned, you can only be reconned between the ages of 6 months and 65 years, and anyone causing the death of another person is deconned (immediately killed and not revived). I love this part of the book, the universe created around this notion that death is not final. The three-pers live in the richest communities while the no-pers live in slums, and as you can guess, people generally associate with their own 'kind' and snub their noses at those with less recons. I loved this, it was amazingly detailed and realistic. I even appreciated the part where Phoenix reads to her sister Fawn from a physical book when everyone uses pods (portable media devices) for their music, reading, and information sharing.

Now on to what I wasn't nuts about. Before Gryphon dies, his behaviour alarms Phoenix and she tries to get information from his friends about what's up with her brother. Saul, Tariq, Huy, and Neko are all part of Gryphon's circle of friends and most of them are pretty well fleshed out secondary characters, save for Huy. I was glad the author made one of her characters openly gay (you don't see enough gay characters in YA fiction), but I wish she had given him more of a personality beyond being "the queer" with nothing else to add to that, he was very flat in terms of character development. Aside from the issue of Huy, the action during the middle of the plot really annoyed me. Phoenix is trying to understand the circumstances of Gryphon's death and she knows the boys know something, but they refuse to tell her. Scene after scene can be summed up as such: "You know something, tell me damnit!"...."No Phee, I can't tell you"...."You tell me or else!"...."No, I can't tell you, not yet". It goes on like that for countless pages until someone breaks and tells Phee what the heck is going on; I'd rather have been in on the plot as a reader and not have to wait until someone bothers to explain it to Phoenix, it was annoying. One last thing: I don't know why but I kept reading this book like a first person narration even though it was done in third person, everything was from Phoenix's point of view but not narrated by her, so my brain kept getting confused by the personal pronouns not referring to who I thought they referred to. One personal thing that irked me: when Phoenix finds out that Gryphon was the cause of her second death at the age of six, she isn't the least bit angry at him. And it wasn't accidental either, when an 8 year old pushes his 6 year old sister into a river and drowns, all because he's curious about death, I'd be pretty pissed, I wouldn't care how much time had passed or that I was reconned. Phoenix could have at least made some grand speech about it or something.

Well written science fiction story with amazing detail and thought, with a few blemishes (but still overly excellent). Themes of the value of life and equality amongst social classes make this novel rife with discussion.

Thoughts on the cover:
This cover is all kinds of awesome, seriously, I am in love with this cover. Gryphon in stasis after being reconstructed after the accident, plugged into various tubes. The artist (Sam Weber) managed to draw Gryphon as if he were floating, his hair tangled above his head, his limbs and muscles relaxed. I even love the pout Gryphon has on his face. Can you tell I love this cover?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Blue Helmet - William Bell

Title: The Blue Helmet
Author: William Bell
Publisher: Seal Books, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 209 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Drama
Started: November 30, 2009
Finished: December 1, 2009

From the back cover:
Lee wants to be a Tarantula - a member of the biggest, most powerful gang in his neighbourhood. But when his initiation goes wrong and the police catch him robbing an auto supply store, Lee's father sends him to live with his aunt in New Toronto.

Lee feels more lost than ever. His mother's death from cancer, and his father's constant absence working two jobs mean he has practically had to raise himself. But though he initially resists his Aunt Reena and the customers of Reena's Unique Café - a ragtag collection of the unusual, the unkempt and the deeply eccentric - Lee gradually learns to open himself up to his new surroundings. When Lee strikes up an unlikely friendship he is suddenly confronted by the ravages of violence, and is forced to face the consequences of his own aggression.

I picked this up the other day because the grade 9 applied English class I was teaching the other day was reading this and it looked pretty good. Plus it's by a Canadian author and was a White Pine nominee (my theory that anything nominated for a Forest of Reading category has got to be more than decent). The book is a very quick read because the plot moves along nicely after the first few chapters once Lee begins his exploits at his aunt's cafe. It didn't hit me till I was more than halfway through the book, but I could've sworn I'd read a book very similar to this before: Eric Walters' "Shattered". Both books open up with a boy in trouble who's forced into service of some kind to make up for his actions, and through that service he comes into contact with a down-and-out male figure who was a Canadian UN peacekeeper in the past. Aside from the circumstances of the main characters, where the peacekeepers were stationed, and fact that Lee's interactions with Cutter serve a purpose other than simply education (like in Walters' Shattered), the two novels could be identical. With that in mind, I still liked this novel, partly because Lee grows up in Hamilton before coming to New Toronto (yay Hamilton!), and that the revelation/message came right at the end and though it was laid on pretty thick at one point (it is a YA novel after all), the author didn't dwell on it to the point of annoyance. The significance of the blue helmet itself didn't make itself clear until very close to the end of the book, but when it did, the author managed to create the wonderful theme of 'choosing the green helmet or the green helmet'.

In terms of characters, Lee is your typical teenage boy with very understandable issues. Cutter is completely paranoid and probably slightly demented, but his antics aren't laughable, they just make you feel sorry for him. Even Lee's dad is nicely developed with his actions towards Lee's mother at the end of her life. The kids in the English class seemed to like this book well enough, and Lee probably helps in this; he's very normal, right down to the passive aggressive back-talk.

The book could serve two purposes in classrooms at least: teaching kids to be the better person and not resort to violence in their own lives, and to dispel the illusions and show the horrors of war (similarly to how "All Quiet on the Western Front" is used in classrooms now). The Blue Helmet serves both equally, with the 'horrors of war' coming in towards the end.

If you have a reluctant reader (especially a boy), or just want to use this book as an excuse for some prime teaching moments, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover is kinda blah: Lee walking across the street with his face covered, the wet road reflecting him.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Rules of Survival - Nancy Werlin

Title: The Rules of Survival
Author: Nancy Werlin
Publisher: Speak, 2008 (Paperback)
Length: 260 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Drama
Started: November 27, 2009
Finished: November 27, 2009

From the author's website:
The Rules of Survival is the story of Matthew Walsh of South Boston, and his sisters, Callie and Emmy. It's written in the form of a long letter to Matt's youngest sister.

He says: "Emmy, the events we lived through taught me to be sure of nothing about other people. They taught me to expect danger around every corner. They taught me to understand that there are people in this world who mean you harm. And sometimes, they’re people who say they love you, and mean it."

Matt has long since put himself in charge of protecting his sisters from their enemy.

And who is their enemy?

It's Nikki O'Grady Walsh. Their mother. Who loves them.

Matt's managed to keep himself and his sisters safe, more or less. He's done okay. But secretly, inside, he's growing tired and hopeless.

Then, suddenly, there's a possible ally on the horizon. Someone who can maybe help him get rid of his mother for good.

Murdoch. His mother's ex-boyfriend.

While I was researching Impossible, Werlin's most recent book that I read this past month, I remember several commenters saying they preffered Impossible over Werlin's previous novel (The Rules of Survival) because of they hated the 'terrible mother'. When I saw this and realized this was the book with the 'terrible mother', I figured I'd give it a shot and see what people were so up in arms about. How bad could the mother character be, right? Famous last words. I read this in the span of a few hours because I was so caught up in the lives of Matthew and his sisters and what they had to endure.The story is told by 17-year-old Matthew to 9-year-old Emmy in the form of a letter. The events in the novel take place when Matthew was 13-15, Callie was 11-13, and Emmy was 5-7. Having a knife held to your throat because you stole a cookie, and being slammed in the face with a bag of mussels for trying to clean up the kitchen are some of the (believe it or not) minor things done to the children by their own mother. These things aren't necessarily done in secret either; Nikki's ex-boyfriend Murdoch witnessed Emmy being held off a cliff by her ankles, and Aunt Bobbie (Nikki's sister) sees similar things on a daily basis since she lives in the same house. You'd think with Nikki's behaviour it would be easy for one of the various adults involved in the story to stand up and act to try to get the children away from her, but they don't. After an incident Matthew cannot ignore, he goes to his biological father as well as Murdoch to beg their help to escape from his mother. It is only after Nikki tries to make make Murdoch's life a living hell that he gets involved.

Nikki is completely insane, I'll put that out there, I don't think I could ever dream up a character this twisted and wrong. She scared the heck out of me, and I'm a grown adult, I can just imagine how all the characters felt. I think the scene when they're driving home from the amusement park, the one that finally forces Matthew into action, was the scariest thing Nikki did in the whole book because it was so completely unexpected. The idea that kids need adults to act on their behalf in these situations and don't find that help is depressing to say the least; I've seen kids removed from their parents for less than that, and the times they really need to be removed for their own safety are the times people are too scared to say anything. Nikki's character is probably the cause of this: she's insane and neglectful, but she also shows love to her children. Her seemingly bipolar personality would confound anyone.

There are so many themes and ideas running around in this book: the different faces of abuse, people living their lives purely in survival mode, daring to hope, and superheroes vs. everyday heroes. This is an excellent book to share with kids and adults, for kids to see that these things happen and that's not right, and for adults to see that it's their duty to stand up and do something to protect kids that have no one fighting for them.

A frightening book, but one that needed to be written and needs to be read.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover is simple yet powerful. The bowl of broken glass with a spoon in it against a blue background speaks volumes, especially when you look at it again after reading the book. Matthew and his sisters walk on eggshells (or broken glass) around their mother, and the glass in the cereal bowl reminded me of the times when Nikki forces the kids to eat till they vomit, they know if they refuse her they'll get something worse than that.

Friday, November 27, 2009

If I Stay - Gayle Forman

Title: If I Stay
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Dutton Books, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 196 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Drama
Started:November 26, 2009
Finished: November 27, 2009

From the inside cover:
Choices. Seventeen-year-old Mia is faced with some tough ones. Stay true to her first love—music—even if it means losing her boyfriend and leaving her friends and family behind?

Then, one February morning Mia goes for a drive with her family, and in an instant, everything changes. Suddenly, all the choices are gone, except one. And it’s the only that matters.

If I Stay is a heartachingly beautiful book about the power of love, the true meaning of family, and the choices we all make.

This novel was hard to read for so many reasons, I outright cried through so many parts, and it takes an awful lot to make me cry about a book. It opens with Mia introducing her family: Mom, Dad, and 7-year-old brother Teddy. I immediately loved Mia's family: her mother is hip and sarcastic, her dad is an ex-punk rocker turned teacher, and her little brother worships her. It's a snow day where they live in Oregon, so they decide to hop in the car to visit one of Dad's old band mates, wife, and new baby. Car accident ensues and Mia finds herself in an out-of-body-experience where she can see and hear everything without feeling it. Her parents are dead immediately, while Teddy and herself are still alive. They are rushed to separate hospitals and Mia watches as all her relatives and friends gather in the waiting rooms.

The main idea in the novel of "Do I stay?" comes from a nurse that tells her grandparents as they watch over comatose Mia while out-of-body Mia flutters above, is that Mia is in complete control; that she can hear everything they say and ultimately she will decide whether to stay or go - to die and be with her family or wake up and continue with whatever kind of life awaits her after the accident. The novel is broken up between flashbacks Mia has of various incidents in her life: learning to play the cello, applying to Juilliard, the birth of her little brother, and meeting her best friend and boyfriend, with observations made by out-of-body Mia while she roams the hospital while deciding whether to stay or to go.

Before you start thinking this book is all doom and gloom, the flashbacks keep a much-needed dose of humour in the story. Anything in involving Mia's dad or his band mates is guaranteed to make you laugh. Aside from the whole concept of a person deciding whether to stay alive or not, there's a sub-plot about people transforming their lives for others, like Mia's dad finally learning to drive and quitting the band to become a teacher when he learns that he's about to have another child (Teddy). The novel really explores concepts of friends and family (I love how Mia adores her little brother), choices in general, and love. The scene with Mia's grandfather talking to her (comatose) in the hospital made me bawl because it was identical to what my mother told my grandmother when she was dying last summer.

If you can handle sad subjects like this, you'll be in for an amazingly powerful book.

Thoughts on the cover:
I included two covers because I much prefer the UK cover art over the US cover art (the blue one with the flower). I think I know what they were going for with the solitary flower against the blue background with the winter-withered tree, but it still seems so plain. The UK cover has a better colour palette in my opinion, the blue and crystal white with the little bit of purple, and the image of the girl is powerful since it symbolizes Mia in her out-of-body state in a flowing robe roaming around in a muted, almost heavenly realm.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Forest of Hands and Teeth - Carrie Ryan

Title: The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Author: Carrie Ryan
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 308 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Drama/Horror
Started: November 24, 2009
Finished: November 26, 2009

From the inside cover:
In Mary's world, there are simple truths.

The Sisterhood always knows best.

The Guardians will protect and serve.

The Unconsecrated will never relent.

And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village. The fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

But slowly, Mary's truths are failing her. She's learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power. And, when the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness.

Now she must choose between her village and her future, between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded by so much death?

Once I got about halfway through this book I realized what I was really reading: aftermath of the Zombie Apocalypse! And that made this book that much cooler. Of course the author doesn't call them zombies, she gives them a fancier name (The Unconsecrated). I never thought I could read an intelligently written novel about that type of subject, but the variety and caliber of children's literature continues to surprise and amaze me.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel that's like a cross between the films 'The Village', and 'I Am Legend'. Mary grows up in an isolated village where a girl has three choices: stay with their family, get married, or join the Sisterhood. With no one to speak for her in terms of marriage, Mary's brother Jed kicks her out of their home and she begins training in the Sisterhood, but she doesn't like what she learns. The villagers are kept ignorant about the Unconsecrated and life outside the fence and the forest that surround their village. Mary wants nothing more than to see the ocean that she hopes lies beyond the forest, and it is this sole thought that keeps her going throughout the book.

This novel was immensely fun to read, campy subject matter (zombies) but also marvelously well-written. I really felt for Mary, being the girl who asks too many questions and suffers for it. Mary longs for answers that she doesn't get, even at the end of the novel. I liked the unresolved ending, sometimes they have their place in novels and it felt right for this one. I later found out this is the first book of a trilogy, so resolution will come in subsequent novels I'm assuming. The story as a whole didn't turn out like I thought it would in terms of plot and the romance element, but in a good way, because it proved this book is definitely not cliche. Mary's narration is beautifully written, the plot moves along quite quickly (which I loved), and zombies...what more could you want in a book?

Intelligently written, serious story involving zombies, need I say more?

Thoughts on the cover:
I really liked the image for the hardcover edition, appropriate and realistic. Mary has her long dark hair, dressed in garb you could believe she wore in her technologically challenged village, and no make-up on. The upcoming paperback cover has their model for Mary wearing eyeliner...hello? in a world when they force girls to be nuns and kill zombies with axes instead of guns, I doubt they had a closet full of eyelash curlers and cover-up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tender Morsels - Margo Lanagan

Title: Tender Morsels
Author: Margo Lanagan
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Started: November 24, 2009
Finished: November 25, 2009

From the inside cover:
Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, given to her by natural magic and in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters, gentle Branza and curious Urdda, grow up in this harmonious world, protected from the violence and village prejudice that once made their mother's life unendurable.

But the real world cannot be denied forever, and gradually the borders break down between Liga's refuge and the place from which she escaped. Having known heaven, how will Liga and her daughters survive back in the world where beauty cannot be separated from cruelty?

This caught my eye after so many book reviewers blogged about it, and just as many readers couldn't finish it because it was so controversial and brutal. Liga's father rapes her repeatedly, gives her herbal concoctions to abort her subsequent pregnancies; and just when her father's out of the picture, she gets gang-raped by a group of the town boys (all in the first few chapters). Luckily for me, I'm more interested in a book if it is controversial as opposed to not, so stuff like that in my fiction doesn't turn me off that easily.The beginning of the story is brutal and fierce and it will make some people uncomfortable.

Liga's granted her own personal heaven/dream world in which to raise her two daughters (Branza a result of her father's sexual abuse, Urdda the product of the gang-rape). From there on the story resembles a retelling of the fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red", with Branza and Urdda filling those two roles (complete with a foul-mouthed dwarf and several bear-men). Urdda longs to know the truth and live outside the dream world and finds the entry back to the real world, with Branza and Liga later following. The themes of escapism and living in reality despite what may happen to you are quite clear, and the author makes her point through beautifully written prose. It truly is a beautiful and powerful story for many reasons, and I can see why so many people enjoyed it.

There are a few things that made this book less enjoyable for me. The length and pacing could have been better, you literally could have cut out 100 pages or so and still have the same effect. The middle portion of the story was horribly boring to read through. I don't care about a dwarf having sex with a witch, or the escapades of the village men dressed as bears who turn into real bears upon entry to Liga's dream world (except for Davit because he's actually integral to the story). The book has a great beginning and end (the parts that deal with Liga and the girls), but the middle is a struggle to get through.

If you have a strong stomach for all sorts of vile and disgusting acts a person can commit to another ('cause if you can think of them, they're in this book), then once you get past the first 50 pages you're in for a beautiful book (minus the boring middle). Although it goes without saying, you probably should not give this to a young child, or a teenager that couldn't handle the material.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love how the cover deals with so much symbolism in such a simple picture. Liga in the arms of the bear-man that we assume is Davit, his face barely visible inside the bear. The whole correlation to men as monsters and monstrous acts committed by men against women is not lost in this image. Also, the live trees in Liga's dress contrast to the thorns/brambles of the real world in the background.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Great and Terrible Beauty - Libba Bray

Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2005 (Paperback)
Length: 403 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Started: November 20, 2009
Finished: November 23, 2009

From the author's website:
It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?

This book has been on so many must-read lists that I finally decided to pick it up. I wanted to like this book, I really did. It's a female empowerment fantasy scenario, and I get that. I love the author's writing style, she's wonderful at symbolism and metaphors and all that (this book would be perfect to analyze for a women's literature class). But the thing that killed this book for me was the characters. I kept wanting to smack some sense into them throughout the whole book. I understand they're products of their time (1895), and that most women back then did act like complete ninnies most of the time, but that still doesn't endear them to me at all. This is exactly why I never enjoyed reading anything by Jane Austen (still can't), and I know people might say, "You have a degree in literature and you hate Jane Austen?" Yes, yes I do. I appreciate the point of books like these: showing the limited options women had and how they were treated and how some rebelled and some just did what they were told. I think reading about those things is important, but I also find it hard to identify with characters in those scenarios. This book is wonderful in how it is a great story of female empowerment, I just think it's difficult for girls today to relate to arranged marriages, divisions of class (practically everyone is middle-class nowadays), and repressed sexuality (like seriously repressed). I think girls need these kinds of stories, but they need them with things more relevant to their lives: choosing a healthy and balanced relationship, the ability to choose family, work, both, or neither and not feel guilty for it; and not being afraid to show intelligence or initiative.

Again, I get what the author was trying to do (and she writes excellently), I just really did not care for the characters and their personalities; it made them less relatable.

If you like 19th century stories with female characters, give this a read. If you think 19th century heroines can go suck a lemon, this might not be your thing.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover is done quite well. The image of Gemma in her corset and shift is an image appropriate for the themes of female power and the constraints of society on women.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Graceling - Kristin Cashore

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Graphia, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 471 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy/Action
Started: November 12, 2009
Finished: November 19, 2009

From the back cover:
Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight-she's a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king's thug. When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po's friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . .

I literally just finished this book about a half and hour ago and wanted to write about it while it was still quite fresh in my mind. This took me a week to read only because life kept throwing things at me (namely my husband's birthday celebrations), but to be honest I'm not complaining, it gave me more time to spend with this book (I would have devoured it in a day or two if I had uninterrupted time). There are numerous books I've read before that deal with very similar concepts to Graceling: powers unique to an individual, political turmoil in kingdoms, even the savage female soldier. Graceling, however, made it seem as if I'd never encountered any of these tropes before, the story was fresh and well-written.

I'll start with thoughts on Katsa: I loved her. It wasn't just that she could beat anyone to a bloody pulp, she was amazingly well-rounded. She has a very sarcastic sense of humour and such a wonderful control-freak, in that respect she reminded me a little of myself. Descriptions of the plot seem to focus on Katsa and her savagery, she even mentions it herself numerous times, but to be honest, I didn't really get a sense of that as I was reading. Perhaps it's one of those things that you need to actually see to get a sense of the intensity (like if her fight scenes were made into a movie), but I didn't really see 'savage', just 'girl with amazing fighting skills' like you'd see in a karate studio. Either way, Katsa is definitely set in her ways and if she gets it in her head to do something or not, she follows through. This particular trait comes across when the issue of marriage comes across, to which Katsa is fervently against, and she maintains that she wants her life to be her own. Granted, she's not anti-love, just anti-limits, which marriage is (for some women anyway) in the world of Graceling.

The rest of the characters were surprising, usually there's a couple characters in a novel I just can't stand, but I genuinely liked them all. Po is witty, Raffin and Bann are sweet, and the various kings are wonderfully evil. I have to admit though that I fell in love with Po's cousin Bitterblue, just her name was enough to endear her to me (the fact that she's a plucky little ten-year-old helped too).

The plot follows through a few things until you meet with the major events of the book, it's very engrossing and the action scenes between Katsa and Po help liven up any parts that seem slow. Though romance isn't the focus of the book, I really like how Katsa and Po's relationship was portrayed (I can't say anything more without entering the realm of super spoilers). Also, I have to give the author credit for perhaps creating one of the best antagonists I've read recently, so so creepy and disgusting on so many levels (I love my psycho-creep villains).

If you want an engaging story with really amazing, well-developed characters, then read it! Might not be the best choice for younger readers (unless they're mature for their age), as there's mention of cruelty to animals and sexual molestation/rape of young girls.

Thoughts on the cover:
I really like this cover for a few reasons. The colours are wonderfully complementary, everything together looks like an old tapestry, and Katsa's face reflected in the blade is a great touch. I wish they had been able to fit more of her face in the reflection so you could see both of Katsa's eyes since heterochromia (each eye a different colour) is such a big part of Graceling.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Babylonne - Catherine Jinks

Title: Babylonne
Author: Catherine Jinks
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: November 9, 2009
Finished: November 11, 2009

From the inside cover:
Early thirteenth-century Languedoc is a place of valor, violence, and persecution. At age sixteen, Babylonne has survived six bloody sieges. She's tough, resourceful, and — now that her strict aunt and abusive grandmother intend to marry her off to a senile old man —desperate. Disguised as a boy, Babylonne embarks on an action-packed adventure that amounts to a choice: trust the mysterious Catholic priest — a sworn enemy to her Cathar faith — who says he's a friend of her dead father, Pagan. Or pursue a fairy-tale version of her future, one in which she'll fight and likely die in a vicious war with the French. Though Babylonne never knew her irreverent father, fans of Catherine Jinks's novels about Pagan Kidrouk will be sure to see the resemblance in his feisty daughter.

I picked this up on a whim, mainly because I'd read some other books written by Catherine Jinks (Evil Genius, Genius Squad) which were spectacular, so I figured she was one of those authors where almost anything they write is good. Another reason why I picked it up is because I'm a sucker for stories that take place in the middle ages, and since this one has a female heroine it pretty much sealed the deal.

The writing style is what I expected from previous novels, but the narration is vividly different because it's done in first person through Babylonne. Since she's feisty, rude, and a tomboy (to say the least), the novel has a really gritty edge to it, you really get a sense of what medieval times were like for people, especially girls. There's a ton of history involved (both political and religious), you have to read carefully to understand exactly what's going on. The whole gender-bending part of the story (Babylonne dresses as a boy for most of the book) was quite funny, it brought in some humour in a mostly action-based plot. My only issue with this book is that I think I would have benefitted from reading Catherine Jinks 4 previous books about Babylonne's father, Pagan before reading this one. Although Babylonne's book does stand-alone, I think those 4 books would have explained the history of the time much better (even I had trouble following it at times).

Fast, engaging read with a strong female character. Perhaps not a good choice for people that aren't fans of history.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover is really well put together: the image of the wall with the knight in shadow surrounded by a dark, foggy sky with Babylonne's face faded in the background. The image doesn't match how Babylonne was described though, she's supposed to look like her father (a Jerusalem-born Arab) with darker skin, but the over shows her as light-skinned with red hair.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Christmas Gift Ideas

Well, it's that season again. Whatever holiday you celebrate, chances are you're trolling the malls thinking of what to buy for the multitudes of people on your list. Year after year, my Christmas shopping trips have always included trips to the bookstore chains and independent booksellers in my area to purchase gifts for my family and friends. Most of the people in our family adore books, so they're always appreciated at Christmas, even by my not-always-nuts-about-books teenage nephews. A lot of parents I find would love to buy books for their kids but have no clue where to start and what to buy that they'll actually read. Well, hopefully these lists will be a starting point. I'll even throw in a few that have crossed age limits and wowed the adults as well as kids. These lists are by no means comprehensive, but they'll give you some good ideas.

Kids Under 9
The Magic Treehouse series - Mary Pope Osbourne
Nim's Island - Wendy Orr
Geronimo Stilton series - Geronimo Stilton
Rainbow Magic Fairies series - Daisy Meadows
Junie B. Jones series - Barbara Park

Kids 9 to 12
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series - Jeff Kinney
Percy Jackson and the Olympians series - Rick Riordan
Septimus Heap series - Angie Sage
The City of Ember - Jeanne DuPrau
Inkheart - Cornelia Funke
The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke
The Black Book of Secrets - F.E. Higgins
The Island Trilogy - Gordon Korman
Elijah of Buxton - Christopher Paul Curtis
The 39 Clues series - various authors
Bone graphic novel series - Jeff Smith
anything by Debora Ellis
anything by Eric Walters

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
The Mortal Instruments series - Cassandra Clare
The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series - Michael Scott
The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
Uglies - Scott Westerfeld
How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher
Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson

For Adults and Kids:
The Dangerous Book for Boys - Conn & Hal Iggulden
The Daring Book for Girls - Andrea J. Buchanan & Miriam Peskowitz

Impossible - Nancy Werlin

Title: Impossible
Author: Nancy Werlin
Publisher: Dial Books, 2008 (Hardcover), 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 364 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy/Suspense
Started: November 6, 2009
Finished: November 7, 2009

From the author's website:
Lucy is seventeen when she discovers that the women of her family have been cursed through the generations, forced to attempt three seemingly impossible tasks or to fall into madness upon their child's birth. But Lucy is the first girl who won't be alone as she tackles the list. She has her fiercely protective foster parents beside her. And she has Zach, whose strength amazes her more each day. Do they have enough love and resolve to overcome an age-old evil?

Inspired by the ballad "Scarborough Fair," Impossible combines suspense, fantasy, and romance.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She must be a true love of mine

Tell her she'll sleep in a goose-feather bed
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Tell her I swear she'll have nothing to dread
She must be a true love of mine

Tell her tomorrow her answer make known
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
What e'er she may say I'll not leave her alone
She must be a true love of mine

Her answer it came in a week and a day
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
I'm sorry, good sir, I must answer thee nay
I'll not be a true love of thine

From the sting of my curse she can never be free
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Unless she unravels my riddlings three
She will be a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a magical shirt
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without any seams or needlework
Else she'll be a true love of mine

Tell her to find me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Between the salt water and the sea strand
Else she'll be a true love of mine

Tell her to plow it with just a goat's horn
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
And sow it all over with one grain of corn
Else she'll be a true love of mine
And her daughters forever possessions of mine

(The version of Scarborough Fair/The Elfin Knight used in Impossible)

A modern day interpretation of a possible story behind the lyrics of the old English ballad 'Scarborough Fair', Impossible is an addictive story that I read in less than 24 hours (over two days) because it was just that good. Werlin's novel has a lot of throwbacks to an old folklore theme of a clever girl who is faced with 3 seemingly impossible tasks that she must complete for some reason or another (we see this in Rumpulptiltskin as well as several other European legends). Lucy Scarborough is 17 and pregnant when she reads her mother's old journal and learns the words to the ballad written above and of the curse placed on the women in her family hundreds of years ago. The Scarborough women all give birth to baby girls at the age of eighteen and then go mad, unless one of them can complete the tasks set forth in the song passed down from mother to daughter.

The hope for Lucy is that she has people helping her: her foster parents, as well as her childhood friend Zach. The novel revolves around the simple themes of true love and what it can accomplish, shown through the relationship between Lucy and Zach. You never question Zach's love for Lucy, he's very obvious in his dedication to her. The story is simple: you know Lucy's fate will be different because she has people helping her that love her, but it keeps you engrossed all the same. The author does an amazing job of taking a old folklore trope and filling it out to apply to modern times (complete with Googling and ordering goat horns off eBay). The characters are well-developed (I especially love how Miranda was portrayed), the story is a page-turner, plus it has old English ballads! Okay, perhaps the English major in me likes those a bit more than most would; but the point remains that this is an excellent book that will keep you reading into the night to finish it.

This book didn't win a ton of awards and stellar reviews for nothing: read it!

Thoughts on the cover:
Thankfully I don't read books based on their covers, because this one doesn't do the novel justice. The hardcover version has the image of the waves at the top, a ton of white space, and the image of the girl walking with the seashore behind her. It's pretty bland. I'm not fond of the paperback version either, though I admit it's more colourful.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

Title:Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Publisher: Razorbill, 2007 (Hardcover)
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Drama/Mystery
Started: November 5, 2009
Finished: November 6, 2009

From the official book website:
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker--his classmate and crush--who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he'll find out how he made the list. Through Hannah and Clay's dual narratives, debut author Jay Asher weaves an intricate and heartrending story of confusion and desperation that will deeply affect teen readers.

There are no words to describe the impact this book has...but I'll try anyway. It's extremely powerful, and knowing the subject matter, you'll understand why. Readers already know that Hannah is dead, but it's her message that keeps people reading. The fact that she recorded tapes to essentially call people out and make them accountable for their part in her suicide, and she does so without any mercy. No judgement is ever made as to whether Hannah's suicide was justified or not, that's not what this book is about. It doesn't glorify suicide, it doesn't downplay it either, it is what it is. It shows readers how much impact they have on the lives of other people: everything snowballs, everything is connected. As I read through the actions of each person Hannah identifies as a reason for her death, I was appalled by the callous nature that was common among every single person, such a lack of empathy. Some of the stories nearly made me cry, simply because I remember these same sorts of events from when I was in highschool. When I think about the impact these events might have had on other people as well as myself, well, you can probably guess that it affected me greatly. My reactions pretty much mirrored Clay's as he listened to Hannah's tapes. It's because of this key message that I think all kids and adults should read this book, because people truly don't realize the power of their actions (adults are guilty of this just as much as kids). The simplest thing you say can have a great impact on someone else, positive or horrendously negative; so before you act or open your mouth, really think about what you're about to do, because you can't take it back.

The dual narrative of Clay and Hannah is really interesting. You see Hannah's voice in italics as Clay listens to the tapes, and Clay narrates his reactions to what he hears and his movements around town while he follows Hannah's map along with her story. It also makes the book a really fast read, or at least it felt like that to me. It also gives two perspectives: we all know what Hannah's opinion of these people is, but it helps to have Clay reinforcing his disgust to make us realize that Hannah isn't being over sensitive, she had a right to be upset about the things people did to her.

I love the fact that the author had Hannah record her story on cassette tapes. Most of the kids who read this book have probably never owned a cassette tape, let alone know how to play one. The throwback to old-school technology was a nice touch.

Read this. Like Clay, you'll never be the same again...

Thoughts on the cover:
The image is not what I'd imagined Hannah to look like (especially the clothes), but I love her on the swing. There's just something about a grown person sitting alone on a swing that's just sad and lonely.