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.