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.

Savvy - Ingrid Law

Title: Savvy
Author: Ingrid Law
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy/Adventure
Started: November 2, 2009
Finished: November 4, 2009

From the official book website:
For generations, the Beaumont family has harbored a magical secret. They each possess a "savvy" — a special supernatural power that strikes when they turn thirteen. Grandpa Bomba moves mountains, her older brothers create hurricanes and spark electricity... and now it's the eve of Mibs's big day.

As if waiting weren't hard enough, the family gets scary news two days before Mibs's birthday: Poppa has been in a terrible accident. Mibs develops the singular mission to get to the hospital and prove that her new power can save her dad. So she sneaks onto a salesman's bus... only to find the bus heading in the opposite direction. Suddenly Mibs finds herself on an unforgettable odyssey that will force her to make sense of growing up — and of other people, who might also have a few secrets hidden just beneath the skin.

This was an incredibly fun book to read. It's a modern-day tall tale full of colourful, outlandish metaphors and similes, as well as seemingly impossible events. Mib's brothers make hurricanes and electricity, her grandpa makes the earth move, her grandma could capture sound waves out of the air, and her mom does everything perfectly (even when she makes a mistake she does so spectacularly). Such is the legacy for Mibs on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. With the events of her dad's accident, her horrendous birthday party, and becoming a stowaway on a Bible salesman's pink bus with two of her brothers and the preacher's kids; Mibs eventually learns what her savvy is, and that even normal people have savvies too (we just called them 'talents' all these years).

The book deals a lot with growing up and the changes that brings, which the author equates to acquiring a magic power you can't really control. It is a wonderful book for pre-teens that acknowledges that growing up can be scary, heck, I still have nightmares about half the stuff that happened when I was thirteen; but you eventually learn and mature from those experiences. I love the ending as well and what happens with Mibs' father, even though it's slightly bittersweet.

I can't express enough how much fun this book is: a cool little romp through the American midwest (aka Kansaka Nebransas) and kids with magic powers trying to outwit the adults along the way, classic kid lit. Plus, their magic is called a 'savvy'....I love that word.

Perfect for pre-teens who like a good adventure story, I think even boys would get something out of this one.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the colours on this cover. The blues and yellows are a wonderful contrast, and the allusion to of the storm coming down upon the kids in the bus is a good one.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dreaming Anastasia - Joy Preble

Title: Dreaming Anastasia
Author: Joy Preble
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2009 (Paperback)
Length: 310 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Started: October 28, 2009
Finished: November 1, 2009

From the publisher:
What really happened to Anastasia Romanov?

Anastasia Romanov thought she would never feel more alone than when the gunfire started and her family began to fall around her. Surely the bullets would come for her next. But they didn't. Instead, two gnarled old hands reached for her. When she wakes up she discovers that she is in the ancient hut of the witch Baba Yaga, and that some things are worse than being dead.

In modern-day Chicago, Anne doesn't know much about Russian history. She is more concerned about getting into a good college—until the dreams start. She is somewhere else. She is someone else. And she is sharing a small room with a very old woman. The vivid dreams startle her, but not until a handsome stranger offers to explain them does she realize her life is going to change forever. She is the only one who can save Anastasia. But, Anastasia is having her own dreams…

This review might be a tad biased simply because I LOVE the history about the Romanovs and Anastasia in particular. I did a massive project on the political downfall of the Romanovs in Grade 10 English class, and even dressed up as Anastasia for the presentation...that's dedication! Plus, my husband and I have already decided that if we have a daughter her name will be Anastasia (which means I'll be buying a copy of this and putting it away for a child that's not even born yet). So yes, you could say that in our household, we like our Russian history.

Luckily for me, this book has an engaging story and likable characters to go along with my favourite subject matter. It's an interesting mix of historical fiction and fantasy, Russian monarchy meets random magical elements like charging a cell phone battery using your mind! The author really did her research, all the historical facts in the book are accurate, right down to the name of Anastasia's dog.

The story changes narration from Anne, Ethan, and Anastasia. The author sets it up such that the narration only switches between chapters, and the heading of the chapter tells you who's speaking. I really like it when authors do this in their books, provided they do it right, because it breaks up the monotony of one first person narrator and lets readers see things from multiple perspectives. This is especially important in this book since things are happening in Anastasia's world at the same time as Anne and Ethan's.

The story is quite engrossing, events are well paced and flow nicely within the plot. There are inserted letters written from Anastasia to various members of her family, and even these are placed perfectly within the story and add just the right tidbits of information at the right time.

I think the only downside of the book was the font choice of Anastasia's letters to her family. They are written in a cursive script, which really makes the letters stand apart from the rest of the text, but makes them difficult to read at time.

If you're in the mood for an entertaining story that actually manages to mix historical fiction and fantasy together, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I think the whole cover is nicely put together. The slightly warped white font surrounded by the graphic, set against blue and black colours and the wispy smoke really draw your attention. You have Ethan's image faded in the left background, and I love that they accented the clarity of his blue eyes. I'm assuming the girl lying down at the bottom is supposed to be Anastasia based on her dress and eye colour, but whoever she is, I like how she's placed.