Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Prince of Mist - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Title: The Prince of Mist
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2010 (Hardcover) (First published in Spain in 1993)
Length: 214 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Horror
Started: September 24, 2010
Finished: September 29, 2010

From the inside cover:
It's wartime, and the Carver family decides to leave the capital where they live and move to a small coastal village where they've recently bought a home. But from the minute they cross the threshold, strange things begin to happen. In that mysterious house still lurks the spirit of Jacob, the previous owners' son, who died by drowning.

With the help of their new friend Roland, Max and Alicia Carver begin to explore the strange circumstances of that death and discover the existence of a mysterious being called the Prince of Mist--a diabolical character who has returned from the shadows to collect on a debt from the past. Soon the three friends find themselves caught up in an adventure of sunken ships and an enchanted stone garden--an adventure that will change their lives forever.

This book received a lot of buzz when it was released a few months ago, mainly because the author's adult novels (Shadow of the Wind) are apparently amazing and everyone was chomping at the bit to read his early young adult stuff, which was previously tied up in international licensing limbo.

In 1943, Max and his family move from the city to the coast and live in a house long abandoned in the wake of tragedy when a child passed away. When Max's little sister is mysteriously injured and falls into a coma, Max and older sister Alicia are left behind while their parents stay at the hospital. More mysterious events occur, including Max's foray into a garden full of stone sculptures that seemingly move. When Max and Alicia seek out information from their friend Roland's grandfather, they are left with more questions than answers until something happens that they cannot ignore.

The Prince of Mist is a simple story, but very well told. It immediately reminded me of a teen's first foray into the Faust legend, the Prince of Mist character being a devil/demon that grants wishes in exchange for a person's life, which is needed for him to survive throughout the ages. The characters could've used a little more development, they fell a little flat, although I did like them all. In this case it reminded me of old-fashioned stories that relied mostly on plot rather than character development. But I'm not complaining, because the well-told story more than makes up for flat characters. The content is sufficiently creepy, including among other things, a clown with fangs....if that doesn't remind you of a certain Steven King image enough to give you the shivers, I don't know what will.

I can't give away too much for fear of spoilers, but if you're looking for a simple but well told horror story that does an awesome job of visual storytelling (you can really picture yourself in the seaside town as you're reading), then give this a go.

If you're looking for a simple Faust story that's got a good dose of creepy, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:

I actually prefer the UK cover in this case. The US cover is literally a cloud on a dark background, while the UK cover has the creepy yet corny glowing eyes with the 6 pointed star mentioned in the book. I think if the US cover had tried to make the cloud look more like a human figure it would've been more effective.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pretty Little Liars - Sara Shepard

Title: Pretty Little Liars
Author: Sara Shepard
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2007 (Paperback)
Length: 286 pages
Genre:Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 22, 2010
Finished: September 24, 2010

From the back of the book:
Everyone has something to hide—especially high school juniors Spencer, Aria, Emily, and Hanna.

Spencer covets her sister's boyfriend. Aria's fantasizing about her English teacher. Emily's crushing on the new girl at school. Hanna uses some ugly tricks to stay beautiful.

But they've all kept an even bigger secret since their friend Alison vanished.

How do I know? Because I know everything about the bad girls they were, the naughty girls they are, and all the dirty secrets they've kept. And guess what? I'm telling.

Whoo boy. All I can say is, where the hell are these people living where their daughters do completely horrible things when they're in grade 6?! What messed up place produces insanely cruel 11-year-old girls? The book starts off right before the group of girls begin grade 8 and most of the novel takes place as they're starting grade 11, but apparently all their horrible stuff started in grade 6. Also, what kind of parents name their daughter "Spencer", seriously people....

Thank god the girls portrayed in this book are NOT like your average kids....I teach a lot of different types of kids, and these girls are far from the average...which is good cause they scare me more than some adults I know ^^;

Though what is described in this book is not your typical high school experience with your girlfriends, I could not put this book down. It's so bad for my brain and I know I'm losing vital brain cells reading it, but I'm a sucker for really juicy secrets and scandal, which this book is full of.

This was a page turner purely for slow reveal of all the girls' secrets and what they're hiding. Since there's 8 books in this series and they're insanely popular, I can see how people could get sucked into these books and be begging for more. It's vapid and disgusts me in some ways, but it's darn addictive.

If you're in the mood for something quick and dirty (get your mind out of the gutter....though there is sexual content, so not for younger than high school age kids), this is for you.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love the Barbie doll images on these covers. It works as a nice metaphor for how the girls are controlled by the messages they receive from the mysterious "A", plus they look nice against the solid colour backgrounds.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Huge - Sasha Paley

Title: Huge
Author: Sasha Paley
Publisher: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), 2008 (Paperback)
Length: 259 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 21, 2010
Finished: September 22, 2010

From the back of the book:

April's been saving all year to afford Wellness Canyon (aka Fat Camp) and she can't wait to start losing weight. Wil's wealthy health-nut parents are forcing her to go to the camp, but Wil is determined to get revenge by gaining weight. They're supposed to work together to meet their weight-loss goals. But Wil's leading April on "hikes" to 7-Eleven, April's relentless pep is driving Wil to hit her secret stash of Godiva, and soon they're both crushing on the same guy. With April as committed to the cause as Wil is determined to undermine the system, this summer's going to be about more than just counting calories....

This was one of the books highlighted at the teen preview night. Even though it's a few years old, the new tv series based on this prompted a rerelease. It peaked my interest because it's about Fat Camp. That's right, Fat Camp. Wellness Canyon in California is fat camp for rich kids, and April's happier than anything to be there after saving up for more than a year. Wil on the other hand, is peeved at her parents for sending her there, so she vows to put on as much weight as she can. Both girls are assigned as roommates, so their personalities clash and they start out hating each other but later end up as friends.

I guess I was expecting a bit too much from this book. Since it has main characters that are chubby, I assumed that the book would focus on some of the issues overweight teens go through, and it did, but not as much as I thought. April is trying to lose weight (without any real support from her mom) so she can be popular like she's always wanted. Wil's parents own a chain of gyms and she is angry that her parents are embarrassed by her weight and the messages she receives that her body's not good enough because she's heavy. April saves up to go to Wellness Canyon, whereas everyone else including Wil was sent there by their rich parents, so there's a lot of focus on April and her wanting what the rich kids have. Wil is super negative and sarcastic (can't really blame her considering her parents), so April's constantly on Wil about being bitchy and a spoiled brat for not appreciating what April herself had to work so hard to accomplish.

This book was kind of a let-down in a couple of areas. There are a lot of cliches: the popular kids are all mean, the love interest is s jock (and a bastard too boot), and the girls all get the message that being skinny is better than being a little heavy. I wasn't too fond of either of the girls, though I liked Wil a little more. April is too obsessed with wanting to impress the popular kids to the point where she ignores the people that like her for herself, and Wil is too much of a spoiled brat to be completely likable. This makes for a good summer or beach read, it's light and fluffy and full of the kind of high school drama that I encounter in my job every day...and hate with a passion.

If you pick this up thinking it'll be a wonderful, deep story about being overweight in a skinny-obsessed world, you won't find it here. Pick this up if you're looking for a satisfying no-effort read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the s'mores image, fits with the camp theme. The solid green background is appealing. Not fond of the tag line though.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cryer's Cross - Lisa McMann

Title: Cryer's Cross
Author: Lisa McMann
Publisher: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), February 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 231 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Horror
Started: September 19, 2010
Finished: September 20, 2010

From the back of the book:
The small town of Cryer¹s Cross is rocked by tragedy when an unassuming freshman disappears without a trace. Kendall Fletcher wasn’t that friendly with the missing girl, but the angst wreaks havoc on her OCD-addled brain.

When a second student goes missing - someone close to Kendall’s heart - the community is in an uproar. Caught in a downward spiral of fear and anxiety, Kendall’s not sure she can hold it together. When she starts hearing the voices of the missing, calling out to her and pleading for help, she fears she’s losing her grip on reality. But when she finds messages scratched in a desk at school - messages that could only be from the missing student who used to sit there - Kendall decides that crazy or not, she’d never forgive herself if she didn’t act on her suspicions.

Something’s not right in Cryer’s Cross - and Kendall’s about to find out just how far the townspeople will go to keep their secrets buried.

This was a book that was discussed at the teen preview night I went to, and I felt so mad that it wasn't coming out till February because I so desperately wanted to read it. Luckily for me, I won a swag bag from that night that had an ARC of this in it, so I got to read it after all ^_^

This book has a wonderfully creepy concept: students begin disappearing from a small Montana town and Kendall notices that all the missing students sat in the same desk at school, so she begins to wonder if perhaps that has something to do with the disappearances. Kendall's a really interesting character: her OCD tendencies make her quirky and differentiates her from most female characters. Her fear and feelings of loss (and how that impacts her OCD) when Nico disappears is wonderfully handled, so the book can also act as a story about the grieving process and not just a creepy story about possessed school desks. Jacian (thank you to the author for showing the proper pronunciation!) is your typical broody boy that comes around at the same time he turns into Kendall's romantic interest. He's actually a good character too, just not as memorable as Kendall.

The book summary leads readers to believe that the whole town is hiding some huge secret, which is not true, it's more like a forgotten piece of ugly history. This relates to my only complaint about the book: it takes freaking forever to develop the creepy part of the plot, you don't even get any development on the voices from the desk until page 200! And when you do get to the juicy parts, it's all rushed and I felt like the book needed to be longer and the key information coming through bit by bit instead of dumped on readers in just a few pages right at the end. Granted, the creepy parts are very well done, and I really wish there'd been more exploration of it, say, Kendall uncovering the mystery piece by piece by talking to the townspeople or uncovering an old journal in the ruins of the school before the events of the climax. This book was wonderful on so many levels, I just wish more time was taken on uncovering the history and events related to the creepy stuff (can't say too much for fear of spoiling it).

A really uniquely creepy read that is sure to please. Shame the ending is rushed though, that's the only real detriment.

Thoughts on the cover:
Kinda corny, but it fits. The title etched into the desk like the messages Kendall reads from the disembodied voices is appropriate, but it still smacks of a twilight-zone cliche.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Crescendo - Becca Fitzpatrick

Title: Crescendo (sequel to Hush, Hush)
Author: Becca Fitzpatrick
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, October 2010 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 427 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 17, 2010
Finished: September 19, 2010

From the author's website:
Nora should have known her life was far from perfect. Despite starting a relationship with her guardian angel, Patch (who, title aside, can be described as anything but angelic), and surviving an attempt on her life, things are not looking up. Patch is starting to pull away and Nora can't figure out if it's for her best interest or if his interest has shifted to her arch-enemy, Marcie Millar. Not to mention that Nora is haunted by images of her father and she becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened to him that night he left for Portland and never came home.

The further Nora delves into the mystery of her father's death, the more she comes to question if her Nephilim bloodline has something to do with it as well as why she seems to be in danger more than the average girl. Since Patch isn't answering her questions and seems to be standing in her way, she has to start finding the answers on her own. Relying too heavily on the fact that she has a guardian angel puts Nora at risk again and again. But can she really count on Patch or is he hiding secrets darker than she can even imagine?

Ah Hush, Hush. Everyone loved it and drooled over the concept of bad boy fallen angels last year when it came out. I had issues with the relationship in Hush, Hush; but those issues are resolved by the time Crescendo starts, so I started the book with an open mind. Crescendo begins with Patch acting as Nora's guardian angel after saving her life in the previous book. Things start to turn south for Nora though: she starts summer school, is realizing how much she really needs a car, is forced to be her rival Marcie Miller's lab partner, and comes to terms about her relationship with Patch. Without giving too much of the plot away, Nora acts like a complete moron, even though Patch is very clear about why he has to do certain things (and even when he isn't it's pretty obvious he's wrapped up in angel politics and can't give her a clear-cut answer). I felt like smacking Nora upside the head (much like in the previous book), thinking "why would you rush head on into what's clearly something beyond your control (aka angel stuff) without asking Patch for information/help?" Even though she doesn't trust Patch, there wasn't enough built-up against Patch's character where Nora is concerned, so the reader knows he would never hurt her, hence the frustration with Nora. So as far as the plot is concerned, Nora causes a lot of her own problems, but I've just come to the realization that that's Nora and we're stuck with her as a heroine so I'd better get used to her. I find myself liking Patch more despite his choice in girlfriends, he's such a great bad boy character.

The plot of the book flowed along much better than in Hush, Hush due to all the subplots. There's the interactions with Marcie Miller, who's so wonderfully mean you love to hate her, as well as the development about what happened to Nora's father and the discovery of the Black Hand. Once the plot focuses less heavily on Nora and Patch's relationship and more about everything else that's going on it gets more enjoyable, at least from my perspective. In this area I liked Crescendo more than Hush, Hush. The writing still good, same as before, I would love to see the author write more books on a different subject matter.

All in all, I liked Crescendo more than Hush, Hush purely because the focus was shared between the relationship and other subplots. Things are really starting to heat up, and it's really peaking my interest. If it weren't for my frustrations with Nora, I'd probably like it a lot more, but readers that don't share my issues in that area will definitely enjoy this book, probably even more than Hush, Hush.

Crescendo comes out Oct. 19 2010, so if you liked Hush, Hush (or even had issues with it, like me), be sure to give it a try. No matter what you thought of the first installment, I anticipate readers will like Crescendo even more.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's not as striking as the cover of Hush, Hush, but still quite beautiful. The grey-scale image of Nora standing in the rain letting go of a blood-red feather (presumably one of Patch's from the previous cover) is a nice touch, and kudos to keeping in theme with the cover from Hush, Hush.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Simon & Schuster Teen Preview Night

I love my local bookstore (Chapters Burlington), I really do. They put on awesome events like this one where book geeks (in this case, YA book geeks) get together to listen to people from publishing companies promote their recent releases. I went to the Harper Collins/HarperTeen one back in the spring, and just like that one, came away with a ton of books to add to my "to-read" pile. They're beneficial for me as a teacher because I scope out new and fresh titles for my classroom, plus I do some research and see what books on the table the kids in the audience flock to after the talk is over. Of course, like everything in YA lit recently, paranormal romance is all over the place...I feel sorry for avid reader boys, but there's lots of steampunk out now that they can read instead of kissy-face vampires. Between the representatives summarizing the books and giving their input, plus people in the audience who've happened to read the book as well agreeing/disagreeing with them, everyone's bound to find something they like, and in my case, several.

I bought what you see in the photo above, all of which should appear in the "Currently Reading" list to your right. Even though I won't finish the pile for a little while, they will all be read....unless they're insanely horrible, which I doubt ^^; And yes, that is an ARC for Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick, courtesy of Simon & Schuster and my Chapters store (my first ARC, squee!). That will be read starting immediately after finishing this post. Although I had my reservations about Hush, Hush (the first installment) when I read it a year ago, I still liked the story despite the teacher in me that wants to tell girls to never ever date a boy like Patch. But I figure since I have a healthy real-life relationship I can read about fictional bad boys all I want...I just won't tell my students that I secretly enjoy my two dimensional bad boys ^_~

On a side note, I remember after reading Hush, Hush and finding out that the author had a contest (back a year ago) to name a new character in this book. Obviously she didn't take my suggestion, but looking at the Crescendo acknowledgements in the ARC, I LOVE the name she did choose (not telling till review time).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - E. Lockhart

Title: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Author: E. Lockhart
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 11, 2010
Finished: September 15, 2010

From the inside cover:
Frankie Landau-Banks at age 14:
Debate Club.
Her father’s “bunny rabbit.”
A mildly geeky girl attending a highly competitive boarding school.

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 15:
A knockout figure.
A sharp tongue.
A chip on her shoulder.
And a gorgeous new senior boyfriend: the supremely goofy, word-obsessed Matthew Livingston.

Frankie Laundau-Banks.
No longer the kind of girl to take “no” for an answer.
Especially when “no” means she’s excluded from her boyfriend’s all-male secret society.
Not when her ex boyfriend shows up in the strangest of places.
Not when she knows she’s smarter than any of them.
When she knows Matthew’s lying to her.
And when there are so many, many pranks to be done.

Frankie Landau-Banks, at age 16:
Possibly a criminal mastermind.

This is the story of how she got that way.

This books is a million kinds of awesome, it is brilliant on so many levels.

Frankie is a sophomore (grade 10) at the prestigious Alabaster Preparatory boarding school. She went from being a nobody in grade 9 to a stunning beauty over the summer, to the point where she's hardly recognizable. The boys, especially the senior boys, are starting to pay attention to her, and she likes it at first. But after a while, Frankie realizes that the boys, including her new boyfriend Matthew, only care about their own precious little lives and think of her as just a pretty piece of furniture at their lunch table. Frankie, being an independent spirit and sick and tired of being underestimated by others, takes action. She's smart too, and wants to beat the boys at their own game. The boys are all part of The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, an all-male secret society founded at the school back in 1951, the same one Frankie's father was part of when he attended the school. Their mysterious guide book, The Disreputable History, has been missing since the 70s, and Frankie's first step is to find it before the boys do. The second step is to plan the best pranks in the history of the school to show the boys that they're aren't 'all that and a bag of chips' like they think they are. Frankie wants to take them off their pedestal, and whoo boy, does she ever.

The book is written in third person, from the point of view of a omniscient narrator. The writing is astounding to say the least, and is some of the most intelligent writing I've seen in a YA book. Frankie loves to play with words, she'll use words like nocuous (from innocuous) or parage (from disparage) in a sentence. And have it make sense. Frankie is such a strong female protagonist, which is always a pleasure to see, notices right away that the boys think less of her because she's a girl, younger than them, and think she must not have a brain in her head because she's so pretty. She notices that Matthew has a need to be right all the time, and takes all that from a scene that most girls would just dismiss. Frankie's pranks aren't just to show the boys how smart she is (they don't even know the pranks are her doing), they are carefully orchestrated social commentary: noting the lack of female presence at the administrative level despite the majority of the school population being female, the cafeteria only serving foods made by the company that paid for the new cafeteria building and not offering a healthy option for students, and the fact that assemblies are held in the school's Christian chapel even though the assemblies are nondenominational, the fact that people only send their children to Alabaster prep because of the networking and connections.

The ending made me slightly mad, that her family didn't know what to think of her and insists she go to counseling. In a way, the school was more lenient with her than her family was, which is pathetic and sad. If it were my daughter I'd tell her I was proud of her and tell her that things will get better when she's in a different environment with different minded people, even though it doesn't seem likely to her now. There are people that shun her for trying what she did and break the social and patriarchal barriers set before her, but she eventually realizes it's not much of a loss for her, that she doesn't care about people that don't appreciate her for what she is.

Looking back, I did things with the same thought behind them as Frankie did. Sometimes my only motivation for getting good grades was to prove to the boys I went to school with (mostly ethnic boys that assumed that girls were around to look pretty and birth babies and that smarts of any kind was part of the male realm) that I could do things just as they could, if not better. I was fortunate to be raised in a family that taught me there wasn't much I couldn't do just because I was a girl, and even more fortunate to marry a man that loves me for my wonderful mind and sees me as an equal, and admits it when I'm right and he's wrong (and vice-versa). I wish books like this had been around when I was in high school and frustrated with people that made me feel bad telling me I wasn't supposed to want the things I wanted (in the words of the book). I'd give this book to just such girls, the smart ones with craptacular boyfriends or dads that think its more important for their daughters to be pretty than intelligent. It'll reassure them of their place in the world.

Read this book. Trust me, just read it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Appropriate considering the letter with the sealing wax theme throughout the book. Better than the paperback version, I think.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Devil's Arithmetic - Jane Yolen

Title: The Devil's Arithmetic
Author: Jane Yolen
Publisher: Puffin Books, 1988 (Paperback)
Length: 166 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: September 10, 2010
Finished: September 11, 2010

From the back of the book:
When Hannah opens the door during Passover Seder to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she suddenly finds herself in the unfamiliar world of a Polish village in the 1940s. Hannah had always complained about listening to her relatives tell the same stories of the Holocaust over and over, but now she finds herself in a terrifying situation. The Nazi soldiers have come to take the villagers away, and only Hannah can guess where they are going.

Another part of my old books kick that I'm on. I can't believe I never read this as a kid, especially considering the WWII/Holocaust stage I had in my reading when I was 11 (right after my grade 6 teacher read us The Diary of Anne Frank, and around the time I started to understand my grandfather's stories from the war that he used to tell me all the time). Since there is a plethora of novels on this subject out there, I usually prefer to use first-hand survivors accounts when using books on this subject matter for my students, it eliminates the "this couldn't have really happened, could it?" talk we go through; however, this is one of the better Holocaust historical fiction titles I've read.

Hannah tires of going through religious holidays and having to sit through the same stories told over and over again (it doesn't help that her grandfather is still living in the past and is severely traumatized 40 years after the fact). It's hard for Hannah to relate, but when she is chosen to open the door for Elijah at Passover and finds her self in 1940s Poland rather than 1980's New York City, she starts reliving the experiences of Chaya, the friend of her Aunt Eva's whom Hannah was named after (Hebrew name). Hannah/Chaya is taken with the rest of her village to an unnamed concentration camp and made to work. Along the way she meets Rivka, a ten-year-old that shares the tricks of how she has survived where others didn't.

I liked how the author made sure to describe Hannah's annoyances with her family when they continue to bring up their stories over and over, it's the same attitude many kids today still have over family history no matter what they may entail, so it's good to see the contrast between being miffed in the beginning and understanding and appreciating them at the end. The only thing I wish the book included was a cultural note at the end. There are so many unique Jewish references in the book that it was difficult to understand all aspects of the story, though I muddled through the basics just fine. I won't be a detriment, but I think if there was a cultural note explaining things I think it would add to a reader's understanding, especially a child reading it.

Another great title in a list of Holocaust education materials.

Thoughts on the cover:
It could be better, but considering it's an old title and covers weren't so great back then, I'll forgive it.

The Face on the Milk Carton - Caroline B. Cooney

Title: The Face on the Milk Carton
Author: Caroline B. Cooney
Publisher: Laurel Leaf (Random House), 2008 (Paperback) (Originally published 1990)
Length: 184 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 9, 2010
Finished: September 9, 2010

No one ever really paid close attention to the faces of the missing children on the milk cartons. But as Janie Johnson glanced at the face of the ordinary little girl with her hair in tight pigtails, wearing a dress with a narrow white collar--a three-year-old who had been kidnapped twelve years before from a shopping mall in New Jersey--she felt overcome with shock. She recognized that little girl--it was she. How could it possibly be true?

Janie can't believe that her loving parents kidnapped her, but as she begins to piece things together, nothing makes sense. Something is terribly wrong. Are Mr. and Mrs. Johnson really Janie's parents? And if not, who is Janie Johnson, and what really happened?

I'm on an old books kick for some reason, finding old gems that I never read when I was younger. It reminds me just how some older books really show their age: could be pop culture references long dead, or cliches/tropes that just aren't used this case it has to do with revelations in the plot itself. Janie Johnson sees a picture of her three-year-old self on the back of a milk carton while in the cafeteria at school and starts to question things...there are no pictures of her before the age of 5, her mother won't let her see her birth certificate, and she finds the dress from the milk carton photo in a trunk in their attic. Her parents tells her that she is really their granddaughter: that their daughter Hannah joined a cult at age 16 and showed up one day with three-year-old Janie in tow. They after a secret visit to her supposed biological family's home in New Jersery and seeing they all sport her trademark red hair, Janie suspects that Hannah just might have kidnapped her after all.

The plot of this book was kind of a letdown for me. After all the crime shows and movies dealing with missing and abducted children, I was expecting something a little more her adopted parents really did kidnap her, or they adopted her through a botched agency or something. But a daughter joining a cult? That's so 1990s. And Janie waiting half the book to demand an explanation from her parents made me want to smack her...I'd have shoved the milk carton on the kitchen table and demanded an explanation the moment I found it. Also, her adopted parents mention that she didn't have a birth certificate, how could Janie go through life from age 3 to age 16 and not have needed a birth certificate for something? Completely unrealistic in this day and age where you need to show a birth certificate for practically anything. I did appreciate the time taken to examine Janie's divided loyalties between her biological family that she doesn't even know and the adopted parents/grandparents that raised her. She actually gets angry at her three-year-old self for running off with Hannah without a second thought to her existing family. I think of someone were to update this story considering twenty years have passed since initial publication it would do really well.

Contains plot points that aren't realistic in this day and age, but altogether a good story about loyalties and ties to who raises you versus who gave birth to you.

Thoughts on the cover:
This updated cover is a bit too busy for my tastes. It also makes the book seems really dynamic and action-packed, which it isn't.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey - Margaret Peterson Haddix

Title: Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey
Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
Publisher: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), 2004 (Paperback) (Originally published 1996)
Length: 125 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 9, 2010
Finished: September 9, 2010

From the author's website:
In the journal she is keeping for English class, 16-year-old Tish chronicles the changes in her life when her abusive father returns home after a two-year absence.

This one is an oldie but a goody....amazing that I call this book old relating to when it was originally published, considering I was in grade 8 at that time...and I just dated myself, but enough of that. A lot of novels use the whole "teachers assign journal writing and the protagonist admits their problems and comes to terms with them and eventually ends up better off for it" kind of plot, but they are always amazing because the epistolary format (journal entries, articles, letters etc.) really gets you into the character's head and males you empathize with them all the more. Tish Bonner is 16 and rough around the edges. She's assigned a journal entry assignment by her English teacher, Mrs. Dunphrey, and the usual rule applies: if the entries are marked "don't read", she swears she won't read them. So Tish uses the journal as a way to vent about her family life, marking each entry with "don't read this, Mrs. Dunphrey." Tish has plenty to vent about: her mother is mentally unbalanced and essentially lives her life as a piece of furniture, her abusive father is now back in the picture after being gone for 2 years, her 8-year-old brother is dependent on her, and the only person that ever cared about them (her grandmother) is dead. Tish doesn't do well in school because she works a part-time job at a burger joint to be able to pay for her own clothes and food. When her dad comes back and her mother becomes even more unstable, eventually abandoning Tish and her little brother, Tish continues to try to keep everything together and all her thoughts go into the journal, until she decides she just can't cope anymore...

Books of this subject matter are always beneficial to read, I think, because they remind us that not everyone is as seemingly "normal" as you think. Everyone has issues and crises of their own that they're dealing with at any given time: the lady walking down the street ahead of you might be going through a messy divorce and custody, the boy sitting behind you in class might be dealing with the death of a parent, and the kid you teach in class might be dealing with abuse in some format. Stories like this teach us to be understanding and forgiving if people don't act they way you want or expect them to, cause perhaps they have a good reason not to. This is especially good for myself as a teacher because half the time the troubled kids do actually have a lot of crap going on that I can't even begin to believe that I understand what they're going through. This story is good for kids, especially kids that don't realize how lucky they are, to read because it makes them realize there are people their own age even worse off than they think they are.

Gritty and based on events that happen more often than we like to admit, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
Eh, considering the subject matter, there's probably not much that would've been considered cover-worthy material, but it is a great improvement over the original older cover image that's floating around on the internet.

The Shifter - Janice Hardy

Title: The Shifter (Book 1 of The Healing Wars)
Author: Janice Hardy
Publisher: Balzer and Bray (Harper Collins), 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 370 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 6, 2010
Finished: September 9, 2010

From the author's website:
Nya is an orphan struggling for survival in a city crippled by war. She is also a Taker—with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person into her own body. But unlike her sister, Tali, and the other Takers who become Healers' League apprentices, Nya's skill is flawed: She can't push that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it into another person, a dangerous skill that she must keep hidden from forces occupying her city. If discovered, she'd be used as a human weapon against her own people.

Rumors of another war make Nya's life harder, forcing her to take desperate risks just to find work and food. She pushes her luck too far and exposes her secret to a pain merchant eager to use her shifting ability for his own sinister purposes. At first Nya refuses, but when Tali and other League Healers mysteriously disappear, she's faced with some difficult choices. As her father used to say, principles are a bargain at any price; but how many will Nya have to sell to get Tali back alive?

This book gets my thumbs up purely because of the original concept, but the execution of it and the moral questions it poses makes this a truly wonderful book. Nya's country of Geveg has been invaded by the Baseeri, who have also taken over neighbouring Sorille and have their eyes on Verlatta as well. With her parents dead and younger sister Tali an apprentice at the Healing League, 15-year-old Nya must rely on her cunning to help her survive...and sometimes her skill as a Taker. Nya's healing magic is different from her sister's. Whereas Tali can take pain from others and transfer it to the pynvium metal to store it, Nya can only shift that pain from one person to another. Their mother always warned Nya never to use her shifting, and it isn't until Nya gets caught up in bargains and exchanges to help Tali that she finally realizes why. Nya is approached by various people that discover her unique healing ability and want her help, some for not-so-honourable purposes. She faces a moral dilemma because she doesn't want to refuse to heal people in spite of the complications that might arise, but she also wants to rescue Tali and expose the Healing League for forcing their apprentices to heal despite the pynvium shortage.

Nya is a wonderful character who's smart, fiery, spunky, and loyal. She cares about her sister, and also about the effect her actions have on other people despite the fact that the majority of people now occupying Geveg (Baseeris) don't deserve her concern. The world building in this novel has been carefully done, with a lot of details as to the history, culture, and other everyday details. The atmosphere in the book reminds me a lot of Funke's The Thief Lord, possibly because a lot of the book has Nya running around the connected Geveg Islands over a bunch of bridges, which is similar to The Thief Lord's Venice setting. The writing has a unique sense of urgency told through Nya's point of view as she's trying to survive day-to-day and save Tali at the same time. The next installment, Blue Fire, is coming out later in the fall, so I'll definitely be picking that up to see where Nya's story goes.

Good pacing, great writing, wonderful concept, and an excellent female lead character. Pair all that with a unique magic system, and you've got an impressive piece of fantasy fare.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. The dark and light blues and purples with the images of the hands in the centre make for a really dynamic cover.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Plain Kate - Erin Bow

Title: Plain Kate
Author: Erin Bow
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 311 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 2, 2010
Finished: September 5, 2010

From the inside cover:
Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden talismans are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”: a dangerous nickname in a country where witches are hunted and burned in the square.

For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate.

Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the angry town, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes she can’t live shadowless forever — and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.

Plain Kate is a YA book that was heavily profiled at BEA (Book Expo America) back in May, but since I didn't get to go, I'll continue to be jealous of everyone that went and received signed advanced reader copies and got to meet the author in person. Plain Kate came recommended for a reason: it's well written, tugs on the heartstrings, and has probably the best talking cat I've ever seen in children's/YA literature. The fact that the author is Canadian and lives someplace other than Toronto is a pretty nice bonus as well.

Plain Kate takes place in a medieval Russian countryside setting complete with witch burnings. Katerina Svetlana (called Plain Kate), lives with her wood carver father in the village of Samilae. All she wants is to become her father's apprentice, but when her father dies and leaves her all alone, she must learn to survive in a town that believes she is a witch because they think her amazing ability as a carver can't possibly be natural. Years later when Plain Kate decides she must flee the town for her own safety, a witch named Linay offers her her heart's desire (which ends up being the gift of speech for her cat Taggle) in return for her shadow. Knowing the lack of a shadow will make people target her even more, Plain Kate travels in search of a place to belong. Along the way she becomes tangled up Linay's plans for revenge.

Kate starts out very vulnerable and weak. She's driven out of her town, essentially used by Linay, nearly killed by the Roamers she stays with, and nearly killed again as a direct result of Linay's plan. She has no reason to care about what happens to anybody, they thought her a witch and tried to kill her, or tried to burn her for the same reason. If I were Kate, I'd probably say "the hell with all you guys, I'm outta here". But Kate sees that the only way to combat fear is to love, that there is good in the world that deserves saving despite the fact that the general populace probably could benefit some smacking around by a witch. I love how little by little the "plain" part of Kate's nickname gets used less and less to coincide with her increasing strength as an individual.

The book is written like someone's telling you a fairy tale, which is a style I quite enjoy. I loved all the characters, though for various reasons. Taggle was amazing, he really is the best talking cat character I've seen in books, and there's quite a few out there. The author got the general cat personality so perfectly that Taggle's voice could be the monologue of any cat...and I'm sure if the cat owners I know read this book, they'd agree with me. Kate is very realistic and likable as a female lead despite all the crap she goes through, and she never gets whiny (thank you, gods of printed material for a heroine I don't want to smack upside the head). Linay is wonderfully multi-dimensional as the antagonist, you truly feel for him by the end and actually sympathize with him. I also liked Linay's complicated relationship with Kate, how he cares for her but still uses her at the same time to put his master plan into action. The Roamers I wasn't as fond of, mostly because I see their treatment of Kate as most unforgivable, considering their experience with witch burnings you'd think they'd be a little less likely to point fingers.

General things I loved: the Russian atmosphere, the lack of romance (this proves you don't need a stupid love triangle to tell a successful YA story), the use of plain ol' witches as opposed to vampires, werewolves, fairies, shape-shifters, etc. I would've appreciated the inclusion of a glossary due to some of the specialized vocabulary, but I made due without one.

If you're looking for a fresh, different take on the typical YA fantasy novel that's beautifully written with some great themes, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
Gorgeous. I love the colour scheme, the browns and yellows with the turquoise accents. The image is pretty with Kate and Taggle on the rooftops, and unique compared to the typical YA covers I've seen recently (images of girls with the tops of their faces cut off holding a glowing piece of jewelry). At first I thought Kate was looking out towards the reader, but upon closer inspection the opposite was true: Kate's back is to the reader looking out over the city balancing on the roof.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Library Wars: Love and War Volume 2 - Kiiro Yumi

Title: Library Wars: Love and War Volume 2
Author: Kiiro Yumi (original concept by Hiro Arikawa)
Publisher: Viz, 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 190 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Manga, Graphic Novel
Started: September 1, 2010
Finished: September 1, 2010

From the back cover:
In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves---the Library Forces! When the director of the Kanto Library Base gets sick, a temporary replacement is assigned, according to regulations. But Iku and her roommate Asako discover a trail of missing books that leads back to the temporary director. Has he betrayed everything the Library Forces stand for and handed books over to the enemy?!

Army librarians yet again! I think this is officially my guilty pleasure series, I love it so much. The same things from volume 1 are here in volume 2: the funny bickering between Iku and Dojo, the friendly rivalry between Iku and Tezuka, and the whole censorship theme. Now that the characters and the plot are established, this volume examines some deeper political issues: the temporary director being in cahoots with the MBC to dispose of library copies of banned books, and the police force wanting the library to break privacy laws in order to expose a murderer's library account. Iku's still pretty naive about things and her black and white views of right and wrong cause everyone else around her to sigh in frustration, but that's Iku for you. Her rash behaviour causes Dojo to go in and "save her" from making things worse for the library forces... so cliche, but darn it if it isn't cute.

Again, all book lovers should read this series, so much fun.

Thoughts on the cover:
Yay for cover continuity! Using the original Japanese cover image, plus keeping with the red accent colour from volume 1.

Bakuman Volume 1 - Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

Title: Bakuman Volume 1
Author: Tsugumi Ohba (Art by Takeshi Obata)
Publisher: Viz, 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 200 pages
Genre: Young Adult: Manga, Graphic Novel
Started: September 1, 2010
Finished: September 1, 2010

From the back of the book:

Is becoming a successful manga artist an achievable dream or just one big gamble?

Average student Moritaka Mashiro enjoys drawing for fun. When his classmate and aspiring writer Akito Takagi discovers his talent, he begs Moritaka to team up with him as a manga-creating duo. But what exactly does it take to make it in the manga-publishing world? Moritaka is hesitant to seriously consider Akito's proposal because he knows how difficult reaching the professional level can be. Still, encouragement from persistant Akito and motivation from his crush push Moritaka to test his limits.

I don't read as much manga (or graphic novels in general) as I used to. There used to be about 10 series I was following, but then a combination of being out of the loop and realizing that with manga, like many things in life, "90% of everything is crap", I didn't read as much. This series was profiled in the English version of Shonen Jump magazine, which I have no idea why I still read since I hate half the titles in it, but this series caught my eye.

Moritaka Mashiro is in grade 9 and has a talent for art and drawing, but has since given up his dream of being a manga artist since his uncle (an unsuccessful manga artist) passed away years ago. He's resigned himself to study hard, get into a good high school and college and just be an ordinary businessman like the majority of all other Japanese males. One day, Akito, one of the smartest guys in the school, comes to him with a proposition: they team up to create manga, Moritaka doing the art and Akito doing the writing. Moritaka is reluctant considering he learned everything about the manga industry from his late uncle, and he knows how hard it is to make a living off drawing manga. Akito then drags him to the house of the girl Moritaka has a crush on and confesses to her that the two of them are going to be manga creators, and that Akito thought she would want to know since he found out that she wants to be a voice actress. Moritaka, in his love-induced shock at finding out this girl he secretly loves wants to pursue an unrealistic career like he secretly wants to, asks Miho if she wants to do a voice in the chance that their manga gets animated. He then follows up with a marriage proposal if both of them achieve their respective dreams. She agrees. So motivated by the premise of true love and marriage to his dream girl if he can only become a manga artist, Moritaka and Akito go about writing stories, doing storyboards, and working like dogs in general to get a finished preview dropped off to major manga publishers.

This series is uber cheesy like most manga, the young protagonists pursuing their dreams and an agreement to eventual marriage by a cute girl seals the deal. But it's kinda refreshing too, it's a slice of life series rather than a typical boys series: swords, fighting, and magic powers. It's kind of educational too, I learned a lot about the manga industry that I hadn't known before. And since the author/creator of this series know what they're talking about (they wrote and drew Death Note), I'm inclined to trust the info here. Since the boys in the story take the roles of writer and artist just like the creators of the manga itself, it has the whole "story about a story" vibe.

There's one thing about this manga I dislike, but there's a few things you should understand first. This was originally created in Japan as a boy's manga, so it was serialized in a manga magazine (Shonen Jump) targeted at boys but also read by girls. Japan is still pretty backward when it comes to gender roles: girls are generally taught to finish school to go work in a company, but then are expected to get married by their mid twenties and stop working to stay home and do the stereotypical female stuff like raising a family. It's acceptable for women to return to work after their children are grown, so many women miss 25+ years in the workplace because of that. In chapter 2 in this volume, the boys get into a discussion about what makes a person dumb or smart. Akito says he thinks Miho is smarter than him even though her marks are average. Akito then tells Moritaka that since Miho is a girl she knows that she must be polite and graceful without being too smart or showing off, because she knows that as a girl its best to get married and be somebody's wife and she won't land a husband/be popular with boys if she's too outwardly smart. He says because she knows this instinctively and goes about these things effortlessly, it makes her smarter than the girl in the class that gets the best grades and takes pride in it. Although this mindset is common in Japan and it's accepted there and girls actually do do the things Akito talks about, it's not the same here. Although there are some boys that don't want to date/marry girls who are smarter than them or smart at all, there are plenty of people that are the opposite. I just think that this leads to one of those patented "teaching moments" for both boys and girls. Ask your kids what they think of Akito's comments and whether they think that girls who get good grades are somehow diminishing their dating prospects. To give my own little backstory: there were plenty of girls I went to school with who deliberately did poorly in school because they wanted to be popular with boys. I on the other hand was competitive and wanted to get better grades than the boys I went to school with, and my parents were fine with that. Thankfully I went to university and there were plenty of guys who wanted to end up with a woman they could have a serious conversation with, including my husband, hence why this little gender episode irks me just a tad...

I really like this series, it's fun, different than the usual shonen fare, plus it's about manga itself. Use the little gender stereotype bit in chapter two to have a conversation about attitudes towards gender in different countries.

Thoughts on the cover:
The English cover is the same as the original Japanese cover, though I like the slight difference in the title font that the English cover uses (note: cover image for this review is of the Japanese cover since it's the only decent picture I could find).