Sunday, February 28, 2010

Eyes Like Stars - Lisa Mantchev

Title: Eyes Like Stars
Author: Lisa Mantchev
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 25, 2010
Finished: February 28, 2010

All her world’s a stage. Beatrice ("Bertie") Shakespeare Smith is not an actress, yet she lives in a theater. She’s not an orphan, but she has no parents. She knows every part, but she has no lines of her own. That is, until now. Enter Stage Right NATE. Dashing pirate. Will do anything to protect Bertie. COBWEB, MOTH, MUSTARD SEED, and PEASEBLOSSOM. Four tiny and incredibly annoying fairies. BERTIE’S sidekicks. ARIEL. Seductive air spirit and Bertie’s weakness. The symbol of impending doom. BERTIE. Our heroine.
Welcome to the Théâtre Illuminata, where the actors of every play ever written can be found behind the curtain. They were born to play their parts, and are bound to the Théâtre by The Book—an ancient and magical tome of scripts. Bertie is not one of them, but they are her family—and she is about to lose them all and the only home she has ever known. Lisa Mantchev has written a debut novel that is dramatic, romantic, and witty, with an irresistible and irreverent cast of characters who are sure to enchant the audience. Open Curtain.

This is probably one of the most clever and creative books I've read in a long time. As you've probably already guessed, there's a huge theatre theme that runs throughout the whole book. Beloved characters from every play ever staged, a theatre that magically changes scenes and can call it's multitude of players instantly, and a ton of terminology are just some of the unique aspects of this book. I loved how classic characters would pop up every now and then and you felt like you knew them because they acted exactly how you'd expect them to (if you're familiar with the character), and even how the non-play characters like Bertie would quote famous lines and I felt really accomplished when I recognized them. I can tell a lot of love went into this book just by those small little things, and I just love it.

I loved all the characters (meaning the non-player ones). Bertie was wonderful and down to earth, Nate was awesome with his pirate lingo, and even Ariel was devilishly enjoyable. The fairies (Moth, Cobweb, Mustardseed, and Peaseblossom) completely stole the book for me, their dialogue was hilarious, and you gotta love an author who incorporates tiny little fairies mooning another character, yay for fairy butt!

The plot moves along quite quickly and there were no boring parts, at least for me. I love how there were two stories you were following: Bertie trying to redeem herself and stay at the theatre, and the ongoing backstory of how Bertie came to the theatre in the first place. This is the first book of a series, so the book ends with the intent of continuing in the second installment (due out in May 2010, called "Perchance to Dream"). I'm already marking the date in my calendar because this is one of those books I'm picking up on the release date since it was just that good. The beauty of this book was all in the writing style and the creativity of the theatre theme, you just have to experience this for yourself.

If you like uniquely written books with quirky characters (and you know a thing or two about plays), then read this! You don't have to be a drama geek to read this, but you definitely appreciate the book more if you're knowledgeable.

Thoughts on the cover:
Gorgeous. I love the colours used and how they even got Bertie's blue hair right. My favourite touch is the fairies, I love those dastardly little fairies. The same cover artist drew the cover for book 2, and the covers are nicely consistent too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

When You Reach Me - Rebecca Stead

Title: When You Reach Me
Author: Rebecca Stead
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 197 pages
Genre: Children's Science Fiction/Realistic Fiction
Started: February 25, 2010
Finished: February 25, 2010

Four mysterious letters change Miranda’s world forever.

By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

This book won the Newbery Medal for 2010, so of course, I had to pick this up. Once I got really into this book, the first thing I thought of was that this was like all the time travel episodes from the sci-fi shows my husband and I watch, just in a kid-friendly formula. This book is indeed about time travel, it even references Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. In 1978, Miranda and her friend Sal live in the same apartment building, go to the same school, and have been friends since they were babies. So when Sal gets punched by a random kid on the walk home from school and suddenly stops hanging out with Miranda, she's a little upset about it. Later on when she receives a mysterious letter from an anonymous person telling her that her friend's life is in danger, she gets really scared. She receives a second letter that references 3 events from the near future, and when all of those events come to pass, Miranda realizes she's dealing with something she's only read about in books: time travel. Someone from the future has written her those letters in an effort to fix something that has yet to occur.

Thinking too hard about the concept of time travel will make anyone's brain hurt, but this novel makes it easily understood and won't have kids too perplexed. The other characters in the book are wonderful and add a great deal to the story: Miranda's mom, Richard, Jimmy the sandwich shop owner, Annemarie, Julia, Marcus, and of course, The Laughing Man. The way everything comes together in the end is quite surprising and I did not expect it; Miranda narrates the book as if she's writing a letter to the person who sent the letters, and the readers have no idea who that person is and whose life is in danger.

I would definitely read this to a middle grade class, it's realistic fiction with science fiction undertones with lots of stuff going on in between, I think all kids could find something they like in this.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover shows Miranda's neighbourhood and all the landmarks associated with it: the apartment buildings, the mailbox that The Laughing Man hides under, the school, and Jimmy's sandwich shop. There are also objects pictured that pop up in the book like Miranda's house key, her library book, her jacket, Richard's stolen shoe, and Jimmy's 2 dollar bill. The cover seems to be lacking a certain something, I know why all those items are there, but it doesn't seem to really make for a dynamic cover.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

American Born Chinese - Gene Luen Yang

Title: American Born Chinese
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Publisher: First Second, 2006 (Paperback)
Length: 233 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: February 24, 2010
Finished: February 24, 2010

As alienated kids go, Jin Wang is fairly run-of-the-mill: he eats lunch by himself in a corner of the schoolyard, gets picked on by bullies and jocks and develops a sweat-inducing crush on a pretty classmate. This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood; it's a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape. The fable is filtered through some very specific cultural icons: the much-beloved Monkey King, a figure familiar to Chinese kids the world over, and a buck-toothed amalgamation of racist stereotypes named Chin-Kee. Jin's hopes and humiliations might be mirrored in Chin-Kee's destructive glee or the Monkey King's struggle to come to terms with himself, but each character's expressions and actions are always perfectly familiar. True to its origin as a Web comic, this story's clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he's depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you'll already have reached out to others.

I love graphic novels and this is the first one in a while that I've really been dying to read. I love reading stories about different ethnicities living in a mixed environment like America or Canada because I find I identify with them and that they end up being funny if you understand the other culture and the jokes they're trying to make. In Canada, especially the particular area of Ontario where I grew up in and still live now, I was very lucky in that there were a lot of families of Italian background that lived in my area, so I went to school with kids that were similar to me in that respect. I never had to deal with insults of a cultural nature, I dealt with insults about other stuff, but never because I was Italian. And for those that aren't aware, in Canada when we say that we are of a certain nationality, most of the time we really mean that that's our background since most of us are Canadian citizens and that goes without saying. The kids I teach get into patriotic discussions in class all the time, usually when sports is involved, and the kids will say, "I'm Portuguese and we can kick your butt any day of the week!", the kid most likely wasn't born in Portugal, they're more likely second or third generation.

Anywho, although I never dealt with the kinds of stereotyping described in American Born Chinese during elementary school (and even high school, my high school consisted of pretty much 2 ethnic groups), I did get my fair share during university when most of my friends weren't ethnic and called me a Whop on more than one occasion. Then I married my husband, whose family is as Canadian as you can get (meaning they originally came from Britain eons ago), and was the recipient of a few remarks about immigrants that made me want to smack certain family members. When my husband and I were in the process of planning our wedding, I wished I was marrying another Italian just to make things easier. My family never did any of the traditional Italian things on a day-to-day basis, but a wedding brings all the traditions out full speed and come hell or high water if anyone tries to interfere ('cause you will be frowned upon by the entire Italian community if you don't do certain things). That's what our wedding was like. Having to explain every custom to his family and justify having it, and at some point fighting for it till I was in tears because they just did not understand why we had those traditions. That experience made me hate being who I was culturally, albeit for a short time. And that's at the heart of American Born Chinese (see, my rambling had a point!)

American Born Chinese illustrates three stories that start out completely unrelated and eventually intersect at the end, so the stories aren't one-shots, you actually have to read each segment to get the full sense at the end of the whole thing. I loved the tale of the Monkey King/Journey to the West, I studied the originals in Asian Lit class in university and seeing pop culture takes on it are almost always hilarious. I loved Jin's story, especially how they introduce every Asian kid as coming from China, even the Taiwanese kid (which is like calling a Canadian an American, we really, really hate that). I actually found it hard to read the sections on Cousin Chin-Kee because he was such a complete stereotype, seriously bad (even his name made me shudder). The way all the stories intersect at the end is really pleasing, and the message of accepting who and what you are is one that people of all ages need reminding of from time to time. As for my husband and I, the wedding did not make me want to divorce him or his family, thankfully. I kept my Italian maiden name, as do women in Italy, and we now live a life balanced by both traditions (actually, my husband makes a better Italian than I do). We plan to raise our kids that way too (in addition to random things from Japanese culture throughout the house), so this way we won't have to wait to expose them to other cultures after they make some remark to another kid on the playground, hopefully we'll teach our kids about the fun of discovering other cultures rather than making fun of them.

An excellent look at growing up a minority in suburbia. I think this would be a wonderful teaching resource for high school kids exploring stereotyping and discrimination, but I wouldn't give it to a group that wasn't anything less than completely mature, some of the material is so badly stereotypical that some kids would lose the point of the lesson and just make fun of everything (and worse, go and repeat it to another kid).

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the yellow colour, you never see that on book covers that often. It probably was done on purpose as a racial thing ("yellow" skin), and if not, it's an interesting coincidence. Jin is pictured along the front and back covers at the far sides so when you fold the book covers back you see the full image of him with his transformer. The background image is the Monkey King under the mountain, and even Chin-Kee shows up on the back cover.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Looking For Alaska - John Green

Title: Looking For Alaska
Author: John Green
Publisher: Speak, 2007 (Paperback)
Length: 221 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: February 22, 2010
Finished: February 23, 2010

Miles "Pudge" Halter is abandoning his safe-okay, boring-life. Fascinated by the last words of famous people, Pudge leaves for boarding school to seek what a dying Rabelais called the "Great Perhaps."
Pudge becomes encircled by friends whose lives are everything but safe and boring. Their nucleus is razor-sharp, sexy, and self-destructive Alaska, who has perfected the arts of pranking and evading school rules. Pudge falls impossibly in love. When tragedy strikes the close-knit group, it is only in coming face-to-face with death that Pudge discovers the value of living and loving unconditionally.

I think this is the first book that I've tried hard to like but couldn't, not because of something the author did or didn't do, but because of something unique to me. The book has a cool concept to start with, Miles wants to leave his safe and boring life for a boarding school that he hopes will be an opportunity for new experiences. He finds those in Alaska Young, and falls in love with her despite the fact that she has a boyfriend. I could identify with Miles because like him, I was relatively sheltered until high school and university, which luckily I grew out of, but I just couldn't make myself like Alaska. She reminded me of this bipolar roommate I had in university that made my life hell, and the happy-one-minute-crying-the-next just reminded me of her and I wanted to chuck the book out the window. But putting my weirdness aside, I can see why people like this book, Miles learns how to truly live even in the midst of tragedy.

I loved all the pranks the kids pulled in the first half of the book, I found them traditionally mischievous. I also liked the little quirk that Miles was obsessed with people's famous last words. The one thing that amazed me was that in spite of the fact that there's a ton of smoking, drinking, sex, and drug use in this book, there's also a lot of introspective religious thought about the meaning of life thank to Miles' and Alaska's world religions class. So in the end, not my cup of tea, but definitely would appeal to some people.

Lots of smoking, drinking, drugs, and sex....not for the kiddies or faint of heart.

Thoughts on the cover:
Kind of plain, I get the candle thing, but it's still plain.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Girl Who Could Fly - Victoria Forester

Title: The Girl Who Could Fly
Author: Victoria Forester
Publisher: Square Fish, 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy/Science Fiction
Started: February 13, 2010
Finished: February 22, 2010

You just can’t keep a good girl down . . . unless you use the proper methods. Piper McCloud can fly. Just like that. Easy as pie. Sure, she hasn’t mastered reverse propulsion and her turns are kind of sloppy, but she’s real good at loop-the-loops. Problem is, the good folk of Lowland County are afraid of Piper. And her ma’s at her wit’s end. So it seems only fitting that she leave her parents’ farm to attend a top-secret, maximum-security school for kids with exceptional abilities. School is great at first with a bunch of new friends whose skills range from super-strength to super-genius. (Plus all the homemade apple pie she can eat!) But Piper is special, even among the special. And there are consequences. Consequences too dire to talk about. Too crazy to consider. And too dangerous to ignore. The Girl Who Could Fly is an unforgettable story of defiance and courage about an irrepressible heroine who can, who will, who must . . . fly.

My husband and I were out book-shopping a week or so ago, and this little title caught my eye. Actually, the cover caught my eye, I love book covers done in this particular style, reminds me of comic books and graphic novels. Then when I saw it was under the Square Fish label, I decided to pick it up, I've read a few titles under that label and have never been disappointed. After reading The Girl Who Could Fly, it's going on my list of titles I'd love to read to a junior-level class (grades 4-6), especially a very bright class. This book is completely charming and funny to boot, but it also had a few moments that nearly made me cry and asking, "oh my god, is this really a kid's book?" It's been described as a mix between Little House on the Prairie and X-Men, and it so is. Piper lives with her ma and pa (that's right, ma and pa) in Lowland County in the middle of farm country. Her town's the traditional sort, so when baby Piper starts to float, needless to say it freaks her parents out. They keep Piper at home away from the townsfolk, hoping her problem will go away in time. When they bring Piper out and she gives away her ability during a baseball game, she is shunned and reprimanded for flying. Dr. Hellion of the I.N.S.A.N.E. institution soon shows up to whisk Piper away to this special school for people with special abilities. There's a kid with x-ray vision, a super-genius, a telekinetic, and even kids with super-speed. But Piper eventually begins to realize things at the school are not what they seem.

This novel is incredibly charming, which is mainly due to Piper. She has an amazing innocent curiosity about her, something so completely absent in children today, it was quite refreshing to read. Most of the characters are deeper than they appear, especially Conrad and Dr. Hellion; and the plot twists in this book were ones I was not expecting at all. The writing is sophisticated for a kid's book, and the message of being true to yourself even when being yourself is not considered "normal" is one that all kids will appreciate.

I dare you to read this book and not find it charming, c'mon, I dare ya. If you love the idea of a cute, country girl that can fly hanging out with other kids with powers, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I'll say it again, I love this cover. In a scene from towards the end of the book, you've got Piper flying with Dr. Hellion hanging off her foot. I love the shade of Piper's hair, the colour of her eyes, and the expression on her face. The gold lettering on the cover is a nice touch too.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Twisted - Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: Twisted
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Viking, 2007 (Hardcover)
Length: 250 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: February 20, 2010
Finished: February 21, 2010

High school senior Tyler Miller used to be the kind of guy who faded into the background—average student, average looks, average dysfunctional family. But since he got busted for doing graffiti on the school, and spent the summer doing outdoor work to pay for it, he stands out like you wouldn’t believe. His new physique attracts the attention of queen bee Bethany Milbury, who just so happens to be his father’s boss’s daughter, the sister of his biggest enemy—and Tyler’s secret crush. And that sets off a string of events and changes that have Tyler questioning his place in the school, in his family, and in the world. In Twisted, the acclaimed Laurie Halse Anderson tackles a very controversial subject: what it means to be a man today. Fans and new readers alike will be captured by Tyler’s pitchperfect, funny voice, the surprising narrative arc, and the thoughtful moral dilemmas that are at the heart of all of the author’s award-winning, widely read work.

I've come to accept that this author could write about anything and make me want to read it, her books are just plain amazing. I like this novel particularly because it's written from the male protagonist's point of view, I find that there aren't a ton of teen novels directed towards guys, especially ones dealing with difficult subject matter such as this one. There are a plethora of books, movies, programs, etc. directed towards teenage girls and helping them be wonderful young adults and deal with the crap they encounter, but other than extremes handed out after something goes horribly wrong, I find that there aren't as many of these opportunities for our boys. I'm female, and although I admit it's really freaking hard to be a girl today, I will say that I think it's much harder to be a boy. We tell kids what we want them to be, but don't really give them any direction or instruction in how to be those things, if anything, our actions tell them the exact opposite. That's what's at the heart of Twisted, Tyler is told time and time again to "be a man", but struggles with what that means. Should he look to his dad as an example-who kisses butt in his job and lets his family come last in life? Should he look to the guys at school who are just plain idiots? Or should he live his life according to his principles even though his dad will call him a disgrace?

The first half of the book describes Tyler's rise from being invisible to being noticed due to the Foul Deed (spray painting obscenities on the school wall), and how people around him actually care about his actions since then. The popular girl in school notices him because his summer of community service has given him a hot body, the principal suspects him of every bad thing that goes on, the school bullies consider him a threat now, and his father is making him take advanced placement courses in his senior year. Tyler actually makes the right choices after the Foul Deed, he doesn't let his father's boss's son walk all over him, and he doesn't take advantage of said popular girl when she comes on to him when she's completely wasted. Yet, he still gets in trouble for them. When his father threatens to send him to military school once everything blows over, Tyler's had enough, and begins to think about killing himself. In the end, Tyler takes control of his life; stands up to the school, the bullies, and his father, and proves that he's a man by standing by his convictions and not letting any aspect of his life take advantage of him.

Like all of the author's books, the writing is just amazing; not quite as lyrical as some of her other books, but wonderful just the same. The plot moves along very quickly and the reader becomes immersed in Tyler's world. I loved his little sister, 14-year-old Hannah, she's the perfect little echo to Tyler's thoughts since she sees the same things as Tyler, and they have a great relationship as far as siblings go. I also liked Tyler's mother, she was very involved and not portrayed as a bad parent in any way. Usually in the author's books, parents are presented as people that just inhabit the same homes as their children without ever interacting with them or getting to know them enough to realize they have a serious problem.

If you're interested in reading a chronicle of the modern, suburban, male teenager, read this! There are some issues like sex, drugs, suicide, and swearing that pop up, so targeted to mature readers of high school age and up.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the twisted pencil, I used to collect weird pencils like these as a kid and would never actually use them in class for some strange reason.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Need - Carrie Jones

Title: Need
Author: Carrie Jones
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 17, 2010
Finished: February 19, 2010

From the author's website:
Zara collects phobias the way other high school girls collect lipsticks. Little wonder, since life’s been pretty rough so far. Her father left, her stepfather just died, and her mother’s pretty much checked out. Now Zara’s living with her grandmother in sleepy, cold Maine so that she stays “safe.” Zara doesn’t think she’s in danger; she thinks her mother can’t deal.
Wrong. Turns out that guy she sees everywhere, the one leaving trails of gold glitter, isn’t a figment of her imagination. He’s a pixie—and not the cute, lovable kind with wings. He’s the kind who has dreadful, uncontrollable needs. And he’s trailing Zara.

I think I must have masochistic tendencies to keep reading these paranormal romance books, they all start to read like bad soap operas after you've read a few. Granted, this one is not quite as bad as others I've read, but it's not something to write home about.

The plot is actually somewhat intriguing once you take away all the cliches of the paranormal romance genre (girl moves to new location, meets boy who's "different", boy protects her from the evil that inevitably befalls her etc.) Zara is sent by her mother to live with her grandmother in Maine after the death of her stepfather. Zara quickly makes friends who notice the creepy guy pointing at Zara through the cafeteria window. Since he leaves a trail of gold dust behind, and a quick Google search tells them that pixie kings leave gold dust behind, everyone immediately believes that the stalker's a pixie king who wants Zara for his queen. I know this is fantasy but, don't people usually question the existence of the paranormal before accepting it? Anyway, so Zara and her friends uncover the truth behind the pixie king, his "need", and how it relates to their sleepy little town in Maine.

I like the plot, most of the elements relating to the pixies themselves were pretty original as far as I know. There are lots of cliches for sure, but the main story is fairly safe. The romance of the novel is actually kind of sweet and not creepy like some other paranormal romance books. Zara prooves herself to be intelligent (most of the time), has a good head on her shoulders and stands up to her love interest, yay for the heroine with backbone!

And now for the annoyances. Most of the story unravels fairly quickly due to hints that may as well be giant signs on the characters' foreheads, I figured out most of the mysteries in the story before the conflict was even introduced. I felt like I was only reading on just to find out the ending, since I already figured out everything that was slowly revealed. The dialogue is very colloquial, it doesn't come off as an intelligent novel by any means, but granted, that's probably not what it's going for.

If you're looking for some fluff to read (cause honestly, who doesn't from time to time?), read this! If you're looking for an excellent example of paranormal romance, there are better titles out there.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love how they incorporated the gold in as the colour of her lipstick, it makes her look like something out of a bad high school costume party, but it fits with the themes of the book, so I still like it. The way the branches don't go beyond her skin and slowly snake up towards her face is a nice touch also. The sequel continues this trend in covers as well, so they go well together.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Going Bovine - Libba Bray

Title: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Adventure, Humour, Fantasy, Realistic Fiction
Started: February 12, 2010
Finished: February 16, 2010

From the publisher's website:
All 16-year-old Cameron wants is to get through high school—and life in general—with a minimum of effort. It’s not a lot to ask. But that’s before he’s given some bad news: he’s sick and he’s going to die. Which totally sucks. Hope arrives in the winged form of Dulcie, a loopy punk angel/possible hallucination with a bad sugar habit. She tells Cam there is a cure—if he’s willing to go in search of it. With the help of a death-obsessed, video-gaming dwarf and a yard gnome, Cam sets off on the mother of all road trips through a twisted America into the heart of what matters most.

After reading one Libba Bray book and hating the story (but loving how she wrote), I didn't think I'd be reading another book by her. Thankfully, Going Bovine is a completely different story from her girl-power historical fiction/fantasy series. This isn't exactly a happy book, it's funny, but not all that happy. Cameron's your normal, slacker, stoner kid. He's like a ton of kids I teach, the ones that you know have potential but don't give a care and want to get by with as little effort as possible. Then he finds out he's contracted the human variant of mad-cow disease and it's slowly going to eat his brain and kill him. Not exactly a happy waltz in the park, right? This is a testament to the author's skill, however, because she manages to take very depressing subject matter and make you forget that along the way. Cameron is in the hospital when he's visited by Dulcie, a punk angel in combat boots who tells him that the forces of evil are about to destroy the world and he needs to make his way through various locations in order to assemble the clues to stop the end of the world and locate a cure that'll save him. He teams up with Gonzo, a hypochondriac dwarf/little person that's obsessed with video games, and the two of them travel across America in search of the random clues that lead them through Mardi Gras in New Orleans, smoothie-drinking happiness cults, snow globe vigilantes, and a bunch of other wacked out things. This book is at times so absurd and funny I dare anyone not to find it at least somewhat amusing.

I love how the novel is like a modern-day retelling of Don Quixote, just with a 16-year-old kid who's brain is being eaten alive by mad-cow disease. The object of his affections is named "Dulcie" and one of the streets early on in the book is called Dulcinea (I love little things like this). For anyone who hasn't read the original Don Quixote, the woman he's chasing in his adventures is named Dulcinea, so that's where the angel Dulcie's name comes from. I also love how just like in the original story, you're not quite sure whether Cameron's completely delusional or if everything's actually happening, no matter how weird and trippy it might be. Well, I shouldn't say that, it's pretty obvious what's really going on if you're paying attention, but I suppose you can pretend not to notice if you really want the ending in suspense.

The book was a little too long-winded at times, I got the point by the middle of the book and some of the episodes after that point just didn't connect with me, so I thought the book could have been a bit shorter. The writing's fantastic, and the message that you only truly live when you give a damn about something other than yourself is beautiful. Plus, there's a yard gnome who's really the Norse god Balder...who talks...which is only one of the crazy things you'll find on your journey through this novel.

Recommendation: If you don't mind reading about a stoner kid who swears a lot and goes on the wackiest adventures ever, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the shifty-looking cow holding the demented-looking garden gnome aka Balder. That is all.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sunday Salon - when books are made into movies

The Sunday

Yesterday, my husband and I went to go see the new Percy Jackson movie. My nephew and I had read the books and loved them, and I wanted to see if the movie did them justice. Man, I don't think I've ever seen a movie twisted that much from the original source (well, I probably have, just none recent enough that I remember). The characters are much older then they're supposed to be, they changed Grover from white to black (and his personality as well), Annabeth falls flat and has none of the intelligence she's known for, they sexed it up waaaay more than the books ever did, and they made Persephone into a goth whore. Not to mention the missing major plot points (no Oracle, no Ares, no Clarisse), the lack of characterization in general, and the transitions between scenes were sloppy and abrupt. Plus, the gods were supposed to be wacky and intimidating at the same time-what happened to Poseidon wearing his Hawaiian shirts instead of that chain mail tunic thing he had in the movie? The film lost some of its charm trying to be too serious. So, my verdict for Percy Jackson? Read the book, the movie is two hours of your life you will never get back.

I learned rather early on in my life that the book is always better than the movie, except in a few rare occurrences. I know that there are some inevitable changes that have to be made when you turn a book into a movie-you have less time and thus have to cut some things out, you might have to changes things that were controversial in the book etc. I make it a point to read the book version when I watch a movie based on it, and I can safely say I have seen a lot of movies that are faithful to the books they're based on. Just going through the kids and teens books I've read there are several excellent movie adaptations: Inkheart, The City of Ember, Coraline, The Golden Compass, The Thief Lord, Speak, The Witches, and the Harry Potter films, just to name a few. When you have a series of books that are best-sellers, it's inevitable that they'll be made into movies, but there's no reason to change the spirt of those books to do so.

Which leaves me to a question: what are some of the best and worst movies-based-on-books that you've seen?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Wintergirls - Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: Wintergirls
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Viking, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 278 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: February 11, 2010
Finished: February 12, 2010

From inside cover:
“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.

Lia and Cassie were best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies. But now Cassie is dead. Lia’s mother is busy saving other people’s lives. Her father is away on business. Her stepmother is clueless. And the voice inside Lia’s head keeps telling her to remain in control, stay strong, lose more, weigh less. If she keeps on going this way – thin, thinner, thinnest – maybe she’ll disappear altogether.

In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the National Book Award finalist Speak, bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson explores one girl’s chilling descent into the all-consuming vortex of anorexia.

I honestly didn't want to read this book once I knew what it was about. I've had my own body issues in the past and thus have avoided books dealing with eating disorders and the like, not the kind of things I want in my pleasure reading. I love the author's work though, I've read a few others by her and her writing is just astounding, so in spite of the subject matter I decided to give it a go. I'm really glad I did.

Wintergirls is heavy on the winter/ice imagery as a metaphor for the girls frozen in this place where they have control over their bodies and yet they don't, and also plays on the Persephone myth as well. When we first meet Lia, it is winter and six months since her last stay in an eating disorder clinic. She finds out her best friend, Cassie, has just died due to complications from bulimia which leads her to be haunted by Cassie's ghost as she spirals out of control. She loves her little sister, Emma, but is very ambivalent towards her parents, whom she thinks don't care a lick about her (and it's shown Lia and her condition is not their first priority). Not only is Lia anorexic, she also cuts herself. The reader counts calories with Lia, views her true thoughts as they are crossed out in the novel and replaced with less "weak" sentiments. The first thing I tried to figure out was why Lia and Cassie developed their eating disorders in the first place. In school, we were always taught that negative body image caused them, but it becomes apparent that negative body image was just the start for the two girls (at the ages of 11 and 12 no less). After a point, it's clear it became something that gave them power where they had none. They had no control over being ignored by their parents in favour of work, divorce, stress from school, from being viewed as a constant disappointment; but they did have control over what went into their bodies and how much they ate. After Lia hits her breaking point and almost dies, she has to make a decision over whether to surrender her power over herself and the strength she think she has in order to start on the road to recovery.

The writing in this novel is beautiful. Lia's narration is very real, and some of the sections I wanted to write out because some of them fit into real life so perfectly. Here's my favourite:

"The snow drifts into our zombie mouths crawling with grease and curses and tobacco flakes and cavities and boyfriend/girlfriend juice, the stain of lies. For one moment we are not failed tests and broken condoms and cheating on essays; we are crayons and lunch boxes and swinging so high our sneakers punch holes in the clouds. For one breath everything feels better. Then it melts. The bus drivers rev their engines and the ice cloud shatters. Everyone shuffles forward. They don't know what just happened. They can't remember." (page 15).

I read this and I think of all the kids I teach, the little ones and the older ones, and it makes me remember high school. There's a lot of emotion in this book, and you can't help but get sucked into it.

Amazing book and should be read, however, due to the subject matter, I definitely don't think it should be read unsupervised by anyone with a suspected eating disorder or serious body issues (the book explores ways Lia hides her weight from nurses and counselors). It could definitely be seen partially as an anorexia how-to. When dealt with properly and discussed though, I think this would make for some wonderful teaching moments for girls.

Thoughts on the cover:
Going all out with the winter imagery, we see Lia's face encased in ice. The hardcover version even sparkles in certain spots when held in the light, so that makes it appear even more like ice. Love this cover.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Droughtlanders - Carrie Mac

Title: the Droughtlanders (Triskelia Book 1)
Author: Carrie Mac
Publisher: Puffin Canada, 2007 (Paperback)
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: February 7, 2010
Finished: February 9, 2010

From the publisher's website:
Twin brothers Seth and Eli Maddox are Keylanders brought up within the privileged and protected Eastern Key. Keylanders, the boys are told, must keep within their walls to avoid the filth and disease spread by the Droughtlanders—those who struggle to survive on the parched land between the Keys. But when Eli sees their mother helping one of the wretched Droughtlanders, a chain of terrible events begins to unravel the life they’ve all known and will pit brother against brother in a life-or-death struggle between two worlds. The first book in the Triskelia trilogy, The Droughtlanders is a brilliant blend of futuristic fantasy and gritty social realism, with unforgettable characters and a compulsively readable story.

When I read The Gryphon Project by the same author back in December, I wasn't crazy about the book (but loved the premise). I had read that the author's Triskelia trilogy came highly recommended, so I decided to track it down. After reading the first book, I've come to realize that I think it's simply the author's style that makes me not so crazy about her books. Again, I love the premise: post-apocalyptic world divided into the minority haves vs. the majority have-nots, characters that happen to be twins, one is delightedly evil, the other discovers his world is not how he perceives it, goes on long journey to discover the truth, brothers meet again and hash things out. The premise is golden but it didn't really grab me. I liked both brothers as characters, but Eli seemed to me almost too meek and mild for a 16 year old boy (the whole pants-wetting thing wasn't exactly believable). I just think the author went overboard with that aspect of his personality. Seth on the other hand is wonderfully evil, and I loved that cliche of the evil twin, but his transformation towards the end of the novel happened a bit too quickly without much transition. Even if he turns out to not be reformed and is playing everyone for a fool, the transition still could have happened more gradually so as to really fool the readers and make them wonder.

The plot starts out great and the main conflict presents itself quickly, but then it gets logged down with the journey motif and I began to lose interest. I could have cut out the parts with Nappo and Teal and just had Eli meet Trace and be on his way to Triskelia, that way he could have spent more time developing with the Triskelians rather than focusing on his getting there in the first place. I did like how it switched from Eli to Seth and back and forth to show their experiences in the Droughtlands. So in conclusion: excellent ideas, however, not well-executed enough to make me really get into the story. This is the first book in a trilogy so I'll check out the sequels and see if they're any better.

If you like dystopian fiction with a really intriguing family dynamic, read this! If you're looking for a great dystopian novel in general, there are better ones out there.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover seems plain at first until you see all three books in the series side by side. The covers really look amazing together, very simple but very co-ordinated and cool.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Sunday Salon - books on parenting

The Sunday

My girlfriend and I were out the other night and she asked for me to help her track down some parenting books (she's expecting her second child). We tried the library, found a few that fit what she was looking for, then later on that night we found ourselves in the bookstore and looking at the massive amount of parenting books on the shelves. Since my husband and I are contemplating starting to expand our family, we've been looking more and more into parent-related books to read, websites to bookmark, and questions to bug our already child-blessed friends with. I already read the two main parenting magazines available here in Canada (Today's Parent and Canadian Family) because I feel I get some worthwhile information out of them as a teacher and interacting with children everyday. Plus, as a teacher, whether you have kids or not, parents will ask for advice on parenting.

On that same thread, I saw a documentary on CBC on Friday night called Hyper Parents and Coddled Kids. It's about the modern-day explosion of hyper parenting, aka helicopter parents. We see these all the time as teachers, the ones that don't want their children to encounter any difficulties that they can't clear away for them, the ones that enroll their kids in more extracurricular activities than are hours in a day, and spend a fortune on their children's birthday parties. Intrigued by the documentary, I tracked down the book it was based on: Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper Parenting by Carl Honore. The book explores various areas where hyper parenting takes over: structured play in place of free play, expensive educational toys vs. plain and simple toys, academic-based preschools vs. play-based preschools etc. It gives examples of the kinds of things well-intentioned parents do for their children and how, even though we've been told for years that all those resume-padding activities will make our children better, it actually works against them, making them more stressed and anxious with not enough time to play and develop properly.

I think in our hearts, we know that too much soccer, homework, piano lessons, baby yoga, and electronics are bad for kids, but we keep getting this message that our kids need to be wunderkinds, that if we don't enrich their lives with art classes, swimming, drama classes, and educational toys, that they'll be somehow left behind and won't we be horrible parents for not providing them with the things that could have given them the head start in life. I didn't even know how many educational toys there were for babies and toddlers until my friends had their first child and I saw all the things their families were buying for them. Almost every toy made noise and lit up, I think the only toy I had growing up that was close to interactive was a Teddy Ruxpin.

While reading the book and watching the documentary, my husband and I discussed a lot of the things mentioned. We agreed that $4000 was an obscene amount to spend on any child's first birthday party, that we were only going to enroll our future children in 2 extracurricular activities at a time (if we could afford them), and that we weren't going to buy our kids cellphones until they are in high school. We look to other people for examples in good parenting: our friends with kids, my sister-in-law with two very well-adjusted teenage boys (my nephews), and our own parents. I do remember a ton of homework when I was in school, but I still had time to play and relax in between the odd extracurricular activity. My husband's memories are similar, he had lots of time to read and develop his own interests in between school and Scouts.

I've had a lot of fun reading this book, it made me think about things like academic preschools and after-school tutoring that pop up once you're a parent. I recommend it to every parent, it's great material, and even if you are one of those rare parents that have a good balance between caring too much and not caring enough, well, you can have a good laugh (or cry) at the examples of parents enrolling their kids in more than 6 extracurriculars at a time and the father who sabotaged his children's tennis opponents with drugs in their water bottles. Now if only someone would write a book about the other kind of parent you encounter as a teacher: the under-parent, the one that likes to believe they never had kids in the first place, I would love to read a book on how to deal with those types.

Which brings me to a good question, what parenting books have you read? Which ones would you recommend to other parents (or in our case, eventual parents)?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Monstrumologist - Rick Yancey

Title: The Monstrumologist
Author: Rick Yancey
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 434 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Horror
Started: February 1, 2010
Finished: February 6, 2010

From the inside cover:
These are the secrets I have kept.
This is the trust I never betrayed.
But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets.
The one who saved me...and the one who cursed me.

So begins the journal of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a man with a most unusual specialty: monstrumology, the study of monsters. In his time with the doctor, Will has met many a mysterious late-night visitor, and seen things he never imagined were real. But when a grave robber comes calling in the middle of the night with a grueso me find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet.

Critically acclaimed author Rick Yancey has written a gothic tour de force that explores the darkest heart of man and monster and asks the question: When does a man become the very thing he hunts?

Once all the children's/teen book award winners for 2010 were announced earlier last month and found, to my surprise, that this book had won the Michael Printz award for young adult fiction, I decided to give this book some more attention. I had seen it on the shelves when it came out in the fall of 2009 but decided not to pick it up at the time. I figured it would be some more vampire/werewolf drivel that passes for psuedo-horror these days, I mean I read scarier stuff when I was in elementary school (for although I hate horror movies, I love scary novels). But, the award made me give it another go, and boy, I stand corrected. This is some of the most gory stuff I have ever read, if this ever were made into a movie they'd have to dumb down half the scenes because of the ratings!

The story begins with the author (Rick Yancey) claiming to have been given the diaries belonging to William James Henry, the oldest resident of a residential care facility. So begins the tale of Will Henry, 12 years old in 1888 and living in New Jerusalem, New England. After losing both his parents in a fire, he came to live with Dr. Warthrop, a self-proclaimed monstrumologist. Will Henry has seen a lot of strange things, but nothing prepares him for the night the local grave robber appears at the doctor's door with more than just your everyday corpse. What follows is the discovery of a monstrous species, the Anthropophagi, the mystery of how they came to a place far from their native shores of Africa, and the plot to exterminate them before they harm more of the area's citizens.

The author's writing is amazing; very gothic, yet very Victorian to match the time period. There were some slow sections where there was more description than advancement of the plot, but all in all, the writing was superb. I have to admit that for me, the whole horror aspect of the Anthropophagi themselves was delivered through descriptions of the carnage they caused rather than descriptions of how they looked. The descriptions almost made them seem comical to me, I even looked up images of the legendary monsters on Google Images to see if there was an artist that could make them seem more imposing...c'mon, how horrifying can something be when they have no head, eyes in their shoulders, and a mouth in their chest? Sounds like something a kindergartner draws. I almost wish the author had included an image of how frightening they can look, because again they just seemed comical rather than scary based on physical description alone. The true horror is in descriptions of their encounters with humans, recounted by the captain Varner, Malachi, and Will. I love the addition of Dr. Kearns (and his many names) in the middle of the book, he brings so much vileness into the story.

If you like a story that scares, read this! Some scenes are quite graphic, so not for the faint of heart.

Thoughts on the cover:
I know the cover is supposed to invoke feelings of disturb and the like, but I'm not feeling it. Perhaps if I knew what was in the glass besides something that just looks fleshy and bloody I'd be slightly more scared.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Witch & Wizard - James Patterson & Gabrielle Charbonnet

Title: Witch & Wizard
Author: James Patterson, Gabrielle Carbonnet
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 307 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction, Fantasy
Started: January 30, 2010
Finished: February 1, 2010

From the author's website:
You are holding an urgent and vital narrative that reveals the forbidden truth about our perilous times....
This is the astonishing testimonial of Wisty and Whit Allgood, a sister and brother who were torn from their family in the middle of the night, slammed into prison, and accused of being a witch and a wizard. Thousands of young people have been kidnapped; some have been accused; many others remain missing. Their fate is unknown, and the worst is feared—for the ruling regime will stop at nothing to suppress life and liberty, music and books, art and magic...and the pursuit of being a normal teenager.

When I read the inside cover, I got excited about this book. Based on the description of the plot I read, it had the potential to be an amazing book. Such a disappointment after actually reading it.

The story opens with Wisteria "Wisty" Allgood narrating what is about to be her own execution. She goes back to the beginning to reveal how things progressed to that point. The narration alternates every few chapters or so between Wisty and her older brother Whitford "Whit" Allgood. I liked the different narration perspectives since it showed the points of view between the two siblings. But that was about the only thing I liked.

The story is simply not believable due to its lack of depth. The existing government practically crumbles overnight and the kids are taken away and accused of being a witch/wizard. It would have been nice to see how the government came to power and the opinions of the characters regarding it. Also, their magic powers pop up out of nowhere once they're taken away. No hints of any past powers due via flashbacks or anything, just poof, Wisty turns into a huge human fireball and can turn the class weasel into an actual weasel. It read like something my 12-year-old students would write, stuff just happening out of the blue without any justification for it. The novel is also practically all dialogue, and very colloquial dialogue at that, I may as well have been reading a script for a B grade teen movie. The different settings of the book had lots of promise: The Shadowland, the Overworld, the Underworld; but the ghost of Whit's dead girlfriend, Celia, never explains anything beyond "yup, these places all exist, let's get out of here". Yes, there is a ghost of a dead girlfriend and no, it didn't make the plot more exciting.

All in all, I don't even think I'll be keeping this for my classroom library, this is a published example of how we tell the kids NOT to write like. Plus, if I wanted to give them a taste of dystopian fiction there are much better choices out there.

Pass. Don't even read the sequels, just pass on it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Why are both the kids featured in the fiery W when only Wisty can burst into flames? Sheesh, they can't even get the cover right.