Tuesday, December 20, 2011

End of the Year Review - Best of 2011

Continuing from my post back in June where I posted on the best books from the first half of 2011 , this is a list of the best books I've read in the second half of this year. Again, since I read more YA than other genres, there will be more of those listed than in any other category. Since I don't have a rating system (ratings are subjective anyway), you'll have to skim the reviews to see if these will impress you as much as they did me. These are in no particular order, and the books aren't all necessarily published in 2011 (but most are), I just happened to read them in 2011.


1. Breadcrumbs - Anne Ursu

2. One Crazy Summer - Rita Williams-Garcia

3. A Tale of Two Castles - Gail Carson Levine


1. When She Woke - Hillary Jordan

Young Adult

1. A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness

2. Marcelo in the Real World - Francisco X. Stork

3. Nothing - Janne Teller

4. Cleopatra's Moon - Vicky Alvear Shecter

5. Forbidden - Tabitha Suzuma

6. Bumped - Megan McCafferty

7. The Girl of Fire and Thorns - Rae Carson

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When She Woke - Hillary Jordan

Title: When She Woke
Author: Hillary Jordan
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: December 3, 2011
Finished: December 15, 2011

From the inside cover:
I am red now. It was her first thought of the day, every day, surfacing after a few seconds of fogged, blessed ignorance and sweeping through her like a wave, breaking in her breast with a soundless roar. Hard on its heels came the second wave, crashing into the wreckage left by the first: he is gone.

Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family. But after she’s convicted of murder, she awakens to a nightmarish new life. She finds herself lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes—criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime—is a sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red for the crime of murder. The victim, says the State of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure with whom she shared a fierce and forbidden love.

A powerful reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a timely fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of the not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated, and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned but chromed and released back into the population to survive as best they can. In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love.

Yay, first review post-baby! I picked this book because it received a lot of hype during the summer and it peaked my interest. Even though it's adult and I don't tend to enjoy reading many adult books, I couldn't turn down the dystopian plot of this one, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

When She Woke is a creative re-imagining of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, in which heroine Hannah Payne's skin is dyed red to mark her crime of murder (abortion). Hannah's world is a futuristic USA, one marked by a horrific STD outbreak that essentially renders women infertile. With this outbreak, church and state become closely infused, and abortion becomes a crime. Under the new penal system, convicted criminals have their skin dyed different colours depending on their crime: red for murder, yellow for misdemeanors, and blue for crimes against children, among others. This eliminates the need for prisons since most Chromes find themselves at the mercy of the outside world after conviction and their life spans greatly shortened. After Hannah's release from the Chrome Ward, she must find a way to live as a Red; rejected by society, her family, and the father of her aborted child.

I liked the world-building and themes of When She Woke, a place where church and state are nearly one in the same, where women's rights have gone back a hundred years, where Hannah questions the religious values that she's been brought up to believe. The elements from The Scarlet Letter were woven in quite nicely, so that aspect was well done.

The only thing about the book that I wasn't fond of was the fact that it loses steam towards the end, it rushes into the ending and doesn't have the same feel as the first half of the book. Up until Hannah leaves the Henley's cloistered little halfway house for Chromes the pacing was great and took its time to explore and savour all the elements that make the novel great (the religious hypocrisy and cruelty, the dystopian elements), but afterwards when she ends up on the little Underground Railway-esque journey to Canada (yay for Canada being the cliche safe haven yet again) things feel rushed and the care taken to explore things in the first half just isn't there in the second half.

Love the premise and the set-up, but things start to fall apart towards the end. Still an excellent book though, and the Scarlet Letter elements are nicely integrated into this dystopian tale.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it, the black background works well with the red profile view of Hannah's face, it's a very sophisticated cover.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sorry things have been slow, but here's my cute reason why...

Hello all,

First off, I apologize for the lack of reviews recently. I know I haven't been up to my usual pace, but pregnancy did a number on my eyes and by the time I had down time at the end of the day, sleep won the battle over reading ^^;

Then, on the day I posted my most recent review, I found out i was going to be induced the next day at the hospital, and my baby daughter was born the day after that ^__^

So things are going to be slow for the forseeable future until I get used to my new routine and learn to work things like reading back into my schedule, but in the meantime, here's a picture of my daughter, Anastasia, to tide you over (hopefully the cuteness will make up for the lack of reviews ^_^)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Son of Neptune - Rick Riordan

Title: The Son of Neptune (Book 2 in The Heroes of Olympus series)
Author: Rick Riordan
Publisher: Disney Hyperion Books, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 513 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult Fantasy
Started: October 31, 2011
Finished: November 7, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,
To storm or fire the world must fall.
An oath to keep with a final breath,
And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death.

Percy is confused. When he awoke from his long sleep, he didn't know much more than his name. His brain fuzz is lingering, even after the wolf Lupa tol him he is a demigod and trained him to fight with the pen/sword in his pocket. Somehow Percy manages to make it to a camp for half-bloods, despite the fact that he has to keep killing monsters along the way. But the camp doesn't ring and bells with him. The only thing he can recall from his past is another name: Annabeth

Hazel is supposed to be dead. When she lived before, she didn't do a very good job of it. Sure, she was an obedient daughter, even when her mother was possessed by greed. But that was the problem - when the Voice took over he mother and commanded Hazel to use her "gift" for and evil purpose, Hazel couldn't say no. Now because of her mistake, the future of the world is at risk. Hazel wished she could ride away from it all on the stallion that appears in her dreams.

Frank is a klutz. His grandmother says he is descended from heroes and can be anything he wants to be, but he doesn't see it. He doesn't even know who his father is. He keeps hoping Apollo will claim him, because the only thing he is good at is archery - although not good enough to win camp war games. His bulky physique makes him feel like an ox, especially infront of Hazel, his closest friend at camp. He trusts her completely - enough to share the secret he holds close to his heart.

Beginning at the "other" camp for half-bloods and extending as far as the land beyond the gods, this breathtaking second installment of the Heroes od Olympus series introduces new demigods, revives fearsome monsters, and features other remarkable creatures, all destined to play a part in the Prophesy of Seven.

Althought I haven't been nuts about Riordan's other current series, The Kane Chronicles, after reading The Lost Hero earlier this year, the first book in the new series continuing the Percy Jackson story, I found this was one sequel series done right.

The Son of Neptune picks up on the other end of the spectrum from The Lost Hero. In The Lost Hero we see Jason who's originally from the Roman camp go to Camp Half Blood in the place of Percy, who has gone missing, and lead the new group on their quest. In The Son of Neptune, we finally get to see Percy and where he's gone, which is to the Roman camp (can't remember a thing, just like Jason) to lead the new group from the Roman camp on their own little side quest. I love the additions to Percy's group this time around, Hazel and Frank. Hazel is biracial (her mother was black) and Frank is Canadian (wooooot!), from Vancouver, specifically of Chinese background. I like how the author is trying to inject a little more multicultural influence into the newer series (biracial characters, different ethnicities), it's really nice to see. Although I liked Hazel's story, I really took to Frank's, i felt for the poor guy.

I can't say a lot about the plot for fear of spoilers, but I can say that if you liked the original Percy Jackson series or if you've already read The Lost Hero and liked it, it's a no brainer that you'll like The Son of Neptune.

Excellent continuation in this new series, if you liked the previous installments, you'll love The Son of Neptune.

Thoughts on the cover:
A little more dynamic than the cover for The Lost Hero, I like it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Liesl & Po - Lauren Oliver

Title: Liesl & Po
Author: Lauren Oliver
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 307 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: October 22, 2011
Finished: October, 26, 2011

From the inside cover:
Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice—until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.

That same night, an alchemist's apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable

Will's mistake has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.

From New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver comes a luminous and magnificent novel that glows with rare magic, ghostly wonders, and a true friendship that lights even the darkest of places.

I'm not the biggest fan of Lauren Oliver's YA books, she's got a beautiful writing style, but there always seems to be something missing from the plots and storylines that make the overall package not as impressive as it could be, so I thought I would try out her new children's novel and see if there was any difference (some authors do write differently from one genre to another). Sadly, this trend continues with Liesl and Po...it's a beautiful little book with wonderful themes and gorgeous writing, but there's just something about it that keeps it from actually being as impressive as I want it to be.

Liesl and Po takes place in a depression era or Dickensian kind of world with factories and smog and poverty. Liesl's family was fairly well off, her mother died when she was little and her father recently remarried and has just died. Liesl's stepmother keeps her locked in the attic in order to claim Liesl's inheritance from her father since she can't actually do away with her completely. One night, Liesl is visited by Po, a ghost from the Other Side, and Bundle, some sort of animal ghost that always seemed like a dog in my head. Liesl asks Po if it can find her father and deliver a message to him, which Po does, relying back to Liesl that her father can rest if his ashes are laid to rest with her mother back in their old home out in the country. At the same time, Will, the alchemist's assistant, is delivering a box filled with the alchemist's greatest magic but gets it mixed up with the box containing Liesl's father's ashes. So when Po helps Liesl escape with her father's remains they're actually running away with the magic box, which leads the alchemist and the Lady Premiere to go running after them to retrieve the right box.

I love the themes of rebirth that the author chose to incorporate in this novel, and she writes them in quite well. The thing that irks me is that by the time I got to the end of the story and realized where everything was going, there ends up being several characters and plot deviations that really could've been cut out completely because they don't add anything to the story at all. The Lady Premiere was essentially a nothing character that could've been cut out, the alchemist could've functioned fine on his own. The lady on the train was pointless too. On the other hand there were some things I wish were fleshed out, like Mo's sister and Po's background before it became a ghost (it's brought up very abruptly right at the end). Plus I wish the main characters like Liesl and Po and Will were fleshed out more themselves character-wise, they seem very flat at certain points. I know it's a children's book, but this felt like it either had to be shorter like a fairy tale that just states facts and people believe them, just make it longer to flesh out the stuff that's already there.

Beautiful writing with wonderful themes, but again there's something missing along the way that just prevents it from having that extra "wow" factor.

Thoughts on the cover:
This book has gorgeous illustrations both throughout the book and on the cover. The best part is that the full version of the image of Liesl, Po and Bundle on the dust jacket is extended on the actual cover underneath, it's soooo pretty.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Breadcrumbs - Anne Ursu

Title: Breadcrumbs
Author: Anne Ursu
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 312 pages
Genre: Children's Fairy Tale/Fantasy
Started: October 17, 2011
Finished: October 21, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn't help it - Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn't fit anywhere else.

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it's never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack's heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it's up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she's read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn't the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

I have been so lucky with my recent books, they've all been ones I've been dying to read and have all really impressed me, and Breadcrumbs continues this trend.

Breadcrumbs is a modern fairy tale retelling of "The Snow Queen", and is one of few fairy tale retellings that is amazingly well done. Hazel is 11 years old and doesn't really fit in anywhere. She was adopted from India as an infant by her white parents who have recently divorced, and is quite conscious of the unspoken questions on people's faces when they see her with her mother. She is highly imaginative (having read lots of stories), and very in tune with her emotions; she doesn't get self-conscious about twirling around in a snow fall in her pajamas, savouring the magic of falling snow, a behaviour that most children reign in around that age. The only person she fits with is Jack, her best friend since forever. Since Jack and Hazel now attend the same school, she depends on his friendship even more to help her transition from a private school that valued her imagination to a normal public school that just wants her to act grown up. Jack has his own issues as well; his mother is deep in the throes of depression to the point where she is like a non-entity, and his father does his best to keep life as normal as possible. At the age where boys and girls begin to have more romantic feelings for each other rather than platonic friendships, Jack has to carefully balance his relationship with Hazel and that of his male friends, and they begin to break apart. Hazel's mother lovingly tries to get Hazel to form friendships with other girls, but Hazel is adamant that Jack needs her as much as she needs him, and in a way she's right.

Whereas the first half of the book sets the stage for Hazel and Jack and shows their day-to-day existence as relatively innocent children dealing with heavy stuff, the second half is the journey that is growing up that both Hazel and Jack go through in their own way. Incorporating the 'Snow Queen' elements, Jack is struck in the eye by a ice shard that penetrates to his very heart, making him cold to Hazel and changing his personality from a boy that loves stories and make believe to a boy that loves the unbreakable truth of mathematics. He goes off with the snow queen/white witch herself to her ice palace, and once Hazel finds out where he's gone she packs up and ventures into the woods, deciding she must rescue him. I loved the ice metaphor for growing up and changing (for the worse) as we grow, the little lines dropped by the various inhabitants of the woods reinforce that the witch's realm is a cruel one and that she's always there but everyone just tries to ignore the fact that she is so they can be happy. The second half is filled with fairy tale tropes and images from the woodsman and the wolves to The Little Match Girl, and as such is written much more surreally and lyrically than the first half (though the writing is just as beautiful in the first half, just not in that 'other-worldly' quality of the second half). Some of my favourite quotes out of this book come from this second half; both of the witch speaking to Hazel when she comes to rescue Jack:

"You know you'll never get him back," she said. "Not really. Even if you take him, it won't be the same." (pg. 281)

"Know this," she said, her voice as clear as a shard of glass. "If you take him away, he will change. And someday he will be a man, and you will not even know him, and he will only think of you with a passing smile."
At least he would think of me, Hazel wanted to say...It was not supposed to be this easy. This was to be the final confrontation. There was to be struggle, torment, despair. But the witch-who was the only person in the woods who wanted nothing-was not what Hazel had to defeat." (pg. 282)

I love these, they're not complicated quotes by any means, but convey meaning in a writing style that is very rarely targeted towards children. The first thing I thought of when I got a sense of the author's style was that this felt more like some surreal story for adults that remember childhood clearly, but then I changed my mind that it is for children too, it's just rare to find an author that will write a middle grade novel in this manner that doesn't talk down to kids. So if nothing else, read this just for the writing, it is truly beautiful on so many levels.

I loved Hazel, it's hard not to, she's portrayed so sympathetically; she also reminded me a lot of myself personality-wise at that age (just minus the male best friend). On a superficial level, I appreciated that she wasn't white; children's books need more multicultural, varied characters than what they usually get, so that aspect pleased me. I also liked the way Hazel's mother was portrayed. Usually parents aren't painted in the best light in children's literature, but Hazel's mom, although she really doesn't understand her daughter, she truly loves her and really tries her best to help in what ways she can, and that comes across clearly. At least this helps perpetuate to kids that yes, a lot of adults/parents won't get you, but there are those that still love you and honestly want to help you and not screw you around. I also loved the addition of Adelaide's Uncle Martin, the one adult that is grown up but still retains the personality of one of the kids, and gets mocked for it; it was another example of growing up, but one where growing up can be done on a person's own terms (ie. I can be grown up in the mature sense but not lose the magic and wonder).

There was only one detriment that I could really think of, and that's that the ending felt rushed and incomplete. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting, but the ending I got left me a little unsatisfied....not quite sure what I would even suggest in its place, I just know it didn't fit...

Stunning, beautiful, and wise; this is a practically perfect offering that is simply enchanting. Gorgeous writing, realistic situations and characters, and a seamless blending of the fairy tale elements into a modern story. Just read this, you won't be disappointed, it's one of the best children's books I've read this year, and it's one that adults will fall in love with too.

Thoughts on the cover:
I'll admit, I had cover lust for this book when I first saw it. The winter forest scene at sunset with the whites, oranges, pinks, and purples is beautiful eye candy; and Hazel off to the side with the wolves in the background are placed just right so your eye is drawn into the core of the forest.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Girl of Fire and Thorns - Rae Carson

Title: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 423 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: October 15, 2011
Finished: October 16, 2011

From the inside cover:
Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa is the chosen one.

But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who needs her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

This book has been on my radar for a while, mainly because it's gotten so much positive hype. Thankfully for me, the book lives up to the hype more or less, I sat down with it over the weekend and couldn't put it down because I got so engrossed in it.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns is high fantasy, and takes place in the kingdoms of Orovalle and Joya d'Arena, where God chooses one person every hundred years for an act of divine service to the people, marked by a divine gem called a Godstone. Elisa is the 16-year-old younger princess of Orovalle, ignored both because she is a girl and because she is not a clone of her older sister Alodia. However, Elisa possess the Godstone, lodged in her navel by a beam of light when she was only a baby (I couldn't help from thinking of Carebears every time this came up despite the serious and non-fluffy nature of the whole idea). She is constantly told of her wonderful destiny as God's servant, but is kept ignorant of what exactly that entails. She is hastily married off to Alejandro, king of Joya d'Arena, in the midst of both countries planning for a war against the common enemy, the Invierne. Not only does Elisa have to learn to navigate the very different world of her new husband's home of Brisadulce, she must also prove herself a worthy queen despite her self-esteem issues. Elisa is later kidnapped by revolutionaries who inform her of a traitor in her new husband's midst, who has allied with the Invierne for his own benefit at the expense of the forgotten hill peoples. Because Alejandro is a coward as a king (but a good man otherwise), the revolutionaries believe that Elisa, as the bearer of the Godstone, is their only hope to save their people.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns does an amazing job of capturing the reader right away, the world-building is remarkably well done and the plot moves along quite nicely, so there's no boring lags to plow through. Elisa is a wonderfully sympathetic character, she's got some insecurity issues from being motherless (and blamed for said act by her older sister), ignored by her father, kept in the dark about what being a bearer really means, and to top it off, she's overweight too. I loved the fact that Elisa was portrayed as a heavier girl, you don't see that explicitly stated in YA books (except ones that revolve around weight loss) and hardly ever in a heroine. Though she does end up losing some weight as the book progresses (not consciously), she's still not portrayed as a stick, so the author gets some respect from me for that. Elisa starts off pretty meek and spineless (though quite a cunning strategist), but eventually does grow into a very confident and self-assured young woman, so there is noticeable character growth for those people that don't like it when their heroines aren't super strong right off the bat (I personally don't mind a spineless character in reasonable circumstances so long as they noticeably grow as the novel progresses).

There were only a few things about this book that irked me. I would have liked to see Elisa not go through the physical body change before having her worth realized...I know the author probably didn't intend it as such and based on the plot it was kind of a natural progression, but it still alludes to the idea that a person who's heavy isn't of value until they conform to the widely held idea of real beauty. Would it be so bad to have a kick-ass heroine who happens to be a little heavy? I know some real-life heavier set ladies that are as healthy as skinny-mini girls, if not more so, and who can give a lot of people a run for their money physically, I'd just like to see this reflected once in a while in mainstream media. Also, the romance aspect wasn't really given a lot of spotlight. That's not a big problem for me, I can live without a romance, but the time they did devote to it wasn't enough, it wasn't very believable. Granted, this is the first book in a planned trilogy, so there might be some new, believable development on the romance front in forthcoming books. Lastly, the book could be viewed as preachy if one chose to read it as such...it's easy to ignore the obvious connections because magic is mentioned (though not as often as the God references and other faith based stuff), so for someone that likes their fantasy without something so closely resembling mainstream religion it did irk me every so often, but again it's easy to ignore.

One of the best fantasy titles I've read this year. Wonderfully well-written with an excellent and engrossing plot that will have you glued to the pages long into the night, and a strong, sympathetic heroine that you can truly admire. I'll definitely be picking up the rest of the series when it's released, so read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
Compared to the proposed cover, this new one is much more appropriate. Elisa is described as dark skinned and heavy, whereas the ARC cover portrays a skinny girl who is anything but dark-skinned. This new cover focuses more on a forest scene with Elisa's face half hidden in the Godstone in the centre. I think some desert imagery would have been more appropriate than a forest scene, but oh well...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bumped - Megan McCafferty

Title: Bumped
Author: Megan McCafferty
Publisher: Balzer + Bray, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction, Science Fiction
Started: October 11, 2011
Finished: October 14, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
When a virus makes everyone over the age of eighteen infertile, would-be parents pay teen girls to conceive and give birth to their children, making teens the most prized members of society. Girls sport fake baby bumps and the school cafeteria stocks folic-acid-infused food.

Sixteen-year-old identical twins Melody and Harmony were separated at birth and have never met until the day Harmony shows up on Melody’s doorstep. Up to now, the twins have followed completely opposite paths. Melody has scored an enviable conception contract with a couple called the Jaydens. While they are searching for the perfect partner for Melody to bump with, she is fighting her attraction to her best friend, Zen, who is way too short for the job.

Harmony has spent her whole life in Goodside, a religious community, preparing to be a wife and mother. She believes her calling is to convince Melody that pregging for profit is a sin. But Harmony has secrets of her own that she is running from.

When Melody is finally matched with the world-famous, genetically flawless Jondoe, both girls’ lives are changed forever. A case of mistaken identity takes them on a journey neither could have ever imagined, one that makes Melody and Harmony realize they have so much more than just DNA in common.

From New York Times bestselling author Megan McCafferty comes a strikingly original look at friendship, love, and sisterhood—in a future that is eerily believable.

I've been wanting to read this for a long time and a copy finally came in at my library, which was good for me since this is once of the more intriguing novels I've read recently.

Bumped takes place in 2036 a dystopian universe where a virus destroys fertility in both males and females beginning between the ages of 18-20. With reproductive technologies being useless in this area, couples wanting a child turn to teenaged boys and girls as sperm and egg donors/surrogates for their children. So to say that in this world, teenage girls are highly valued is a bit of an understatement. I love the feel of this book right off the bat. You hit the ground running in Bumped, you're thrown right into this world where teenage pregnancy is encouraged and exploited rather than shamed, it's kind of like a huge celebrity scene where the best surrogates and sperm donors are asked for autographs and have their own agents and receive multi-million dollar contracts from clients. Because the author throws you into this world with no info-dumping at the beginning, it does take a little while to get used to the world and the terminology before you begin to really understand where the author's going with all this.

Amidst this whole crazy world that encourages sexuality in young girls are Melody and Harmony, 16-year-old identical twins separated at birth and adopted out into two completely different set of circumstances. Melody goes to a family that primes her to be a professional surrogate from an early age, whereas Harmony is adopted into Goodside, a religious community separate from the teen pregnancy-obsessed culture that is Melody's life. The book opens with Harmony and Melody meeting for the first time after having discovered the other upon investigation of their adoption records. Harmony intends to try to make Melody see the error of her ways and to try to bring her back to Goodside so she can be an honest wife and mother. Melody on the other hand is caught up in maintaining her exclusive contract with the Jaydens, a couple whose child she will bare once a suitable sperm donor is found. Right away the two worlds are juxtaposed, Harmony's uber religious life is messed up something fierce, but so is Melody's in a different way, it really highlights the fact that the situations both girls are coming from are bad on both ends of the spectrum.

I love how pregnancy itself is at first shown to be this happy, bouncy kind of thing that all these girls want and that their government wants them to want, and you see the propaganda that the girls are shown on a daily basis. But as the book unravels you see how things aren't as wonderful as they seem: the girls are given drugs to prevent them from bonding with their babies so they can easily give them up at birth, and anyone who somehow isn't affected by the drugs or doesn't take them is taken away to a remote facility. Girls suffer pregnancy complications and are affected for the rest of their lives for an action that not many of them give too much thought to because their world doesn't want them to consider the risks involved. The practice of eugenics is also widely used, which harkens back to some serious Nazi Germany mental images. So the author doesn't completely promote the idea of teen pregnancy for anyone who's worried that that might be an issue.

There were a few things that I noticed though. If fertility is destroyed sometime between the ages of 18-20, I can get why reproductive technology like IVF and such wouldn't work on older people (I'll ignore the fact that the virus causing all this is never really explained, but I'm used to that in these types of books), but why wouldn't they be able to use such technology on the teenagers themselves, thereby removing the act of sex altogether? They make this whole big deal over the act itself, whether that's to get the kids interested or whatever, but you'd think to ensure success they'd simply make it more clinical rather than rely on the act to just work....unless the author's trying to shown how corrupted and soulless this world is, which if that's her game she succeeded. Also, I think for a reader to actually get the full extent of the "teen pregnancy isn't as awesome as it seems" bit, they'd have to have a lot of knowledge about pregnancy. There's a lot of specialized terminology thrown around that assumes the reader understands the depth to, but your average young adult reader wouldn't (most teenage girls I teach don't have a freaking clue about pregnancy beyond the basic stuff), I understood because I currently am pregnant and have practically memorized sections of pregnancy books, but I fear a lot of the stuff mentioned will fly over the heads of targeted readers, which is kind of sad because the beauty is in these subtle details that get thrown around. One thing that's completely personal, I hated Harmony and felt she was very unrealistic. I get that she was raised in a very sheltered environment but falling for every guy that pays her the slightest bit of attention and then running off with the guy she knows is supposed to bump with her twin sister? Sorry, not quite believable in my eyes. She does redeem herself in the end and I appreciate the point of view shown through her, but as a character she just annoyed the crap out of me.

As an obvious note, there's a lot of sexual innuendo and sexual language in this book, there's pre-teens talking about sperm donors in such a sexual manner that it made me uncomfortable, and again I know it's to show how they're idealized like celebrities, but it's still super creepy. It completely blows your mind in terms of how we're conditioned to think about kids and young adults and sex, so obviously this is something you'd give an extremely mature reader, one that can understand the subtleties that the author is trying to do here.

Excellent book that explores the idea of teen pregnancy in a witty and subversive way that's well written with an incredible amount of world-building. Given that, the sexual content contained here means this book should only be given to mature readers that will understand that the author is not in fact glorifying anything here.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple but appropriate.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Anastasia's Secret - Susanne Dunlap

Title: Anastasia's Secret
Author: Susanne Dunlap
Publisher: Bloomsbury Books, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 330 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: October 5, 2011
Finished: October 8, 2011

From the inside cover:
For Anastasia Romanov, life as the privileged daughter of Russia's last tsar is about to be torn apart by the bloodshed of revolution. Ousted from the imperial palace when the Bolsheviks seize control of the government, Anastasia and her family are exiled to Siberia. But even while the rebels debate the family's future with agonizing slowness and the threat to their lives grows more menacing, romance quietly blooms between Anastasia and Sasha, a sympathetic young guard she has known since childhood. But will the strength of their love be enough to save Anastasia from a violent death?
Inspired by the mysteries that have long surrounded the last days of the Romanov family, Susanne Dunlap's new novel is a haunting vision of the life-and love story-of Russia's last princess.

I'll admit, I've had this on my radar for some time, mostly because I'm about a month away from giving birth to our daughter whom we've named after the youngest Russian princess/duchess, so anything with the name Anastasia in it tends to capture my attention.

In spite of my love of all things Romanov, this book fell a little flat for me. The premise of the story is that Anastasia had a romantic liaison before her death at the age of 17 (the author imagines a young guard as the boy in question). However the whole situation regarding the romance seemed very unrealistic and implausible. The author sets up the story and atmosphere of turn of the century Russian nicely and you can tell she's really done her research regarding the parts that have a basis in actual history. When it comes to the imagined parts regarding the romance though, it just doesn't seems to fit. Sasha and Anastasia never seem to have a believable reason why they would get together (the author doesn't really have them together often enough to explain why they like each other), but I can almost forgive that seeing as how Anastasia was guarded and sheltered most of her life and I can believe that she would fall for the first boy that she got to know beyond an acquaintance level. However, the other aspects aren't believable either. I can see her slipping away to see Sasha before the family was placed under house arrest during the revolution, but afterwards I don't buy it; the family was heavily guarded and I find it hard to believe that Anastasia was able to be alone with a random solider undetected long enough for hanky panky. That and the fact that people know how Anastasia's story ends, I find it hard to believe that she or her love interest would allow her to meet such an end like Sasha did...and if she really loved anyone in a romantic way I think she would've tried to escape given the chance like in the book. It almost seems as if this story would have been better off as more fiction than historical based, where the author writes it so that Anastasia actually survived and went off into the sunset with said romantic interest and lived happily ever after or however they want to word it.

If you like novels based on the Romanov family, you might want to skip this one. The writing and setting are well done, but the romance angle doesn't really seem plausible at any point, and there are better novels with different plot lines out there that work better as an historical fiction piece.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the look of the model but probably would've liked if they'd picked someone who actually looked like the real Anastasia. The details like the lace on the dress and the pearl necklace are nice touches though.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Forbidden - Tabitha Suzuma

Title: Forbidden
Author: Tabitha Suzuma
Publisher: Simon Pulse, 2011 (Hardcoer)
Length: 454 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 29, 2011
Finished: October 5, 2011

From the publisher's website:
Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives--and the way they understand each other so completely--has also also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love. Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.

I have to admit, I love taboo subject matter, I drink it up, there's not much that immediately turns me off. Forbidden was right up my alley, it's a book that's insanely taboo and controversial, and on a subject we don't often see: incest...consensual incest at that.

Lochan (I had no idea how to pronounce his name so in my head I always called him 'Lochlan", since it was the closest name to his that I knew how to say) and Maya are the two oldest siblings in a very difficult situation. Their mother first got pregnant with Lochan as a teenager and doesn't hide the fact that this is the only reason she married their father (a polar opposite of her). After having a total of 5 children (Lochan, Maya, Kit, Tiffin, and Willa), their father abandons the family and remarries. Their mother drinks and is frequently absent from the home, leaving Lochan and Maya with no choice but to take over responsibility for the whole family. With such a heavy burden placed on them at such an early age, it's no surprise that Lochan and Maya never saw each other as siblings, but rather as equal partners in a household, almost functioning like a husband and wife or father and mother in their roles to their younger siblings. In the midst of all this, Lochan and Maya come to realize their mutual feelings for each other...and this is where I can see a lot of people throwing the book out the window because of the incest issue. But I caution that, because this book; although extremely controversial because it not only shows incest, but incest that is consensual at all stages; is one where such subject matter is beautifully portrayed.

The book is told in alternating first person points of view (Lochan and Maya) and the difference between the voices is handled well. Lochan takes after his father, an academic, and his voice is wonderfully crafted with eloquent descriptions and metaphors. Maya's voice is also well done, slightly more colloquial and down to earth, but nonetheless deeply in touch with her feelings. I think this book could've only worked in a first person point of view because seeing into their heads is the only way to truly understand their situation and the depth of what they feel for each other, even though they know what they feel is considered disgusting and wrong. You see them struggle with the responsibilities of running a household with 3 younger siblings (ages 13, 8, and 5), trying to make sure their mother comes home often enough to give them enough money to survive, all the while trying to get good grades at school to improve their futures for their sake as well as their siblings'.

Through all this, you tend to agree with Lochan and Maya, that they don't really act or function as brother and sister, that they are only related through an accident of biology as they say. This idea doesn't necessarily make the act of incest okay, that's not what I think the author is saying, but it does get readers to consider that there's more to love than the norm that we all think of in our heads. Just because most people would be disgusted by the idea of having relations with a blood sibling, doesn't necessarily mean it's 'wrong'. A lot of people believe homosexuality is wrong, but just as many believe that so long as both individuals are consenting adults that aren't hurting anyone, really who are we to judge? I'm not even talking about the issue of having children in an incestuous relationship, because for genetic reasons that is obviously irresponsible and cruel, but leaving that out of the picture, can anyone give a valid reason (aka not going into bible thumping or vague morality statements) as to why the relationship itself is wrong? After reading Forbidden, I honestly couldn't give a reason, it really made me think, which is why I think this book is amazing.

The characters speak for themselves I think. Lochan is tormented and only blossoms within the comfort of family, Maya is more outgoing but is still tormented by her feelings. Kit is probably the one sibling that I was really intrigued by, especially due to his actions at the very end...he's 13, so very much a typical angsty ball of teenage rage, but his actions are both understandable and detestable at the same time. Tiffin and Willa weren't explored much, but I did like how they showed the effects of an extremely dysfunctional family on young children, if nothing else it made me have more sympathy for the situation these kids found themselves in. The writing is beautifully done, and the voices are appropriate for the feel of the book. The ending I have mixed feelings over, not necessarily of the outcome ('cause really you know it's not going to end up all rainbows and fluffy unicorns), but rather how things are tied up in the final chapter...I thought it was a little too easy and there should have been some more exploration regarding Maya and her choices (can't say anything else for fear of spoilers). Other than that I think the book is a mind-blowing little package and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a reader mature enough to handle what's in it.

Amazingly well done, I never thought I would ever classify a book on this topic to be beautiful, but I do. Obviously due to the incestuous content, and the surprisingly graphic sexual content that goes along with it, this book is not for anyone that's not mature enough to handle it. Normally with books with sexual content in it I'd have no problem giving it to a 14-year-old and up, but I'd caution giving this to anyone under 16 unless they were extremely mature readers. I could have read this at 14 or 15 and it wouldn't have scarred me for life, but not all kids are as equipped to handle tough issues as I was.

Thoughts on the cover:
The image used for this review is of the UK cover (originally being published in the UK) since I couldn't find a decent enough image of the North American cover. The domestic cover is essentially the same image of the barbed-wire heart, just with a red cover and the tagline "Sometimes love chooses you". I like the tagline of the domestic cover better than the UK one because I think the UK one focuses too much on the taboo of the whole book rather than getting to the heart of the issue, which is what I think the domestic cover's tagline does wonderfully: the idea that you can't really choose who you fall in love with and you're damned if you try (but you can choose how you react to it).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Then - Morris Gleitzman

Title: Then (sequel to Once)
Author: Morris Gleitzman
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 198 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 28, 2011
Finished: September 28, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
Felix and Zelda have escaped the train to the death camp, but where do they go now? They're two runaway kids in Nazi-occupied Poland. Danger lies at every turn of the road.

With the help of a woman named Genia and their active imaginations, Felix and Zelda find a new home and begin to heal, forming a new family together. But can it last?

Morris Gleitzman's winning characters will tug at readers' hearts as they struggle to survive in the harsh political climate of Poland in 1942. Their lives are difficult, but they always remember what matters: family, love, and hope.

I fell in love with Once last year because it was so poignant and the writing was beautiful (thanks mainly to Felix's voice). Then takes off where Once left off, Felix and Zelda jump off the train headed toward the concentration camp and realize they need to find a place where they'll be taken care of. They come across Nazi soldiers at a mass grave of Jewish children and flee to the neighbouring town where they are taken in by Genia. Genia's an interesting character because she is anti-Semitic and yet hates the Nazis more because they hurt children. Felix and Zelda must take on new identities in the town and blend in as much they can to prevent from being discovered, and with Jews tormented and killed everyday, the possibility that they might meet the same fate grows more apparent.

Then has the same unique innocent yet not quality of writing that Once had. Felix is more aware in this book as opposed to the previous one, he's already lost his innocence, but he holds back for Zelda's sake, and softens things without completely sugarcoating them, it's an interesting balance.

Beautiful, just like it's predecessor. The ending might be a bit much for sensitive readers, so be aware (as much as I can say without spoilers).

Thoughts on the cover:
Grittier and bolder than the Australian cover of Once from my previous review, the domestic covers obviously underwent an overhaul to make them more appealing. The cover of Once was also redesigned to match this one: the Once cover features just Felix on the barbed wire against a gray background.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hourglass - Myra McEntire

Title: Hourglass
Author: Myra McEntire
Publisher: Egmont, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Science Fiction
Started: September 16, 2011
Finished: September 20, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
One hour to rewrite the past . . .

For seventeen-year-old Emerson Cole, life is about seeing what isn’t there: swooning Southern Belles; soldiers long forgotten; a haunting jazz trio that vanishes in an instant. Plagued by phantoms since her parents’ death, she just wants the apparitions to stop so she can be normal. She’s tried everything, but the visions keep coming back.

So when her well-meaning brother brings in a consultant from a secretive organization called the Hourglass, Emerson’s willing to try one last cure. But meeting Michael Weaver may not only change her future, it may change her past.

Who is this dark, mysterious, sympathetic guy, barely older than Emerson herself, who seems to believe every crazy word she says? Why does an electric charge seem to run through the room whenever he’s around? And why is he so insistent that he needs her help to prevent a death that never should have happened?

Full of atmosphere, mystery, and romance, Hourglass merges the very best of the paranormal and science-fiction genres in a seductive, remarkable young adult debut.

I have to admit, I picked this book up purely because of cover-lust, it's absolutely gorgeous. Sadly, the actual book wasn't quite as satisfying even though I really really wanted to like it.

Emerson is 17 years old and since her parents passed away 4 years ago, she now lives with her brother and his wife. Since her parents' death, she's also been able to see what she thinks are ghosts from past time periods, and her brother has been trying to find someone to help her deal with this ability. When her brother hires Michael for the job, Emerson falls for him hard and fast. He belongs to an organization called Hourglass, and explains to Emerson that what she's seeing aren't actually ghosts per se, she's seeing time rips, images of people from the past while they were still alive, kind of like poking your head through into an alternate universe while still walking around in ours. He also drops the bomb that she can see these rips because she can travel back in time, just as Michael can see time rips from the future. When the two are combined, in a very cheesy "we were destined to be together" cliche, they can travel to the past or the future. Michael convinces Emerson to help him save the life of his mentor, who was killed 6 months ago, but there are risks they need to face...

This book has a decent enough concept, I'm all for a unique spin on time travel, but this whole plot seemed rushed from the start. Since it felt rushed with not a lot of information given or fleshed out, the plot seemed unrealistic and unbelievable. You have some decent powers that relate to time travel but then lead in with a cheesy romance where the girl and guy fall for each other way too quickly for it to be believable, and the guy is obviously hiding things from the girl and she knows it and she doesn't kick him to the curb for it! Plus the 'special powers' school screams 'X-Men', which, although I love X-Men, I hate it when every special school portrayed in fiction falls into that cliche without some personality of its own to stand on.

However, there were a few things I did like. Emerson seemed like a pretty good character at first, but she suffers once the romance element is introduced, she completely turns into that YA spineless, senseless heroine that I hate, which is unfortunate, I thought she was pretty spunky in the beginning. I also was really intrigued by Kaleb, not necessarily by his role as the other guy in the love triangle, but just himself as a character since he is an empath and was portrayed very sympathetically (plus he's a bit of a playboy, but a goodhearted one, so he's okay in my books).

Not as good as I was hoping for, but there were some good points. I will probably pick up the sequel to see if things improve in the next installment.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's sad the book itself was disappointing, 'cause the cover is freaking beautiful. I love the curve and angle of the cover model, how it looks like she's suspended in motion as a gust of wind whipped through her hair and clothing (I had to turn the book around to "get" the clue in the picture).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths - Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

Title: D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths
Author: Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire
Publisher: The New York Review of Books, 1995 (Hardcover) (originally published in 1967)
Length: 154 pages
Genre: Children's Classic/Fantasy
Started: September 13, 2011
Finished: September 15, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
The Caldecott medal-winning d'Aulaires once again captivate their young audience with this beautifully illustrated introduction to Norse legends, telling stories of Odin the All-father, Thor the Thunder-god and the theft of his hammer, Loki the mischievous god of the Jotun Race, and Ragnarokk, the destiny of the gods. Children meet Bragi, the god of poetry, and the famous Valkyrie maidens, among other gods, goddesses, heroes, and giants. Illustrations throughout depict the wondrous other world of Norse folklore and its fantastical Northern landscape.

I must've been deprived as a child because I only discovered the D'Aulaire mythology books as an adult. I stumbled upon the Greek Myths one years ago when I first exposed my nephew to the Percy Jackson books and he was into anything related to Greek Mythology. When I found out there was a Norse Myths book as well, I kept my eye out for it since I knew I'd want to add it to my collection. We're big on mythology in this household...we named our dog Freya and my husband briefly jokingly considered naming our child Thor ^^; I grew up on versions of the Greek myths but never was really exposed to the Norse myths until university, so although I do prefer the Greek/Roman myths I do think the Norse stories are pretty awesome too.

The D'Aulaire mythology books are just stunning to say the least. The illustrations are vibrantly colourful with a texture quality that you just don't see in modern picture books. Like the D'Aulaire Greek Myths book, the stories in the Norse Myths are presented in a somewhat linear fashion, each one is connects to the stories placed before and after it in the book. It's not a style you see often in mythology books (I find they tend to be written in entries like encyclopedias or in one-shot stories where all the backstory is either completely left out or explained in full), but I find that I like it done this way, it naturally flows from one story to another.

There's not much to say about this book aside from the fact that it's a classic for a reason and that everyone who read it as a child has fond memories of it. We recommend these books to our students when they do research projects on mythology, which considering that these books are from the 1960's is a pretty amazing thing. I now have both D'Aulaire mythology books in my collection now, which will eventually go on my daughter's bookshelf, and I can't wait to pass these on to her.

If you're looking for a classic book of mythology stories for your child, or even for an adult to enjoy, look no further. It's probably not the best idea to give this to a very young child though, I noticed the paper quality is a bit thin, so in order to avoid ripped pages you might want to wait until they are school-aged and more gentle with things.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the darker gray-blues of the Norse Myths cover contrast with the bright yellows and oranges of the Greek Myths cover. The image of Odin riding Sleipnir is a nice dynamic one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Vol. 1 - Naoko Takeuchi

Title: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Vol. 1
Author: Naoko Takeuchi
Publisher: Kodansha Comics USA, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 236 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Manga
Started: September 13, 2011
Finished: September 13, 2011

From Amazon.com:
Usagi Tsukino is a normal girl until she meets up with Luna, a talking cat, who tells her that she is Sailor Moon. As Sailor Moon, Usagi must fight evils and enforce justice, in the name of the Moon and the mysterious Moon Princess. She meets other girls destined to be Sailor Senshi (Sailor Scouts), and together, they fight the forces of evil!

This new edition of Sailor Moon will feature:

- An entirely new, incredibly accurate translation!
- Japanese-style, right-to-left reading!
- New cover art never before seen in the U.S.!
- The original Japanese character names!
- Detailed translation notes!

This version of Sailor Moon will be completely true to original. Join us as Sailor Moon returns to the U.S. for the first time in years!

Cheesy as this is, this was a must-buy for me. I was a huuuuuuuuge Sailor Moon fan when the show first came out (I was 12 then), and that was the first of many events that eventually led to a university degree in Japanese Studies and being fluent enough in Japanese to keep shelves of Japanese comics and novels that aren't there for show.

For those not familiar with the issues surrounding the Sailor Moon manga in North America (or if it was just before your time), I'll give you a quick synopsis (I'm assuming I don't actually need to summarize the plot of the manga itself, I'll let you find that on your own if need be).

The manga was created by Naoko Takeuchi in Japan in the early 1990s and ran until the series was completed in 1995, resulting in 18 volumes. The anime television show began in the middle of all that, ending in Japan in 1997 after the 5th season. Domestically, the television show first aired in 1995, with the English manga release soon following in 1997. However, North American licenses tried to make the show more marketable to younger viewers, so they had to amend and censor a lot of the show's mature content (turning the lesbian characters into 'kissing cousins'), and the same happened in the English language version of the manga. Plus this was back in the day when translators thought that North American readers couldn't handle the right-to-left format of Japanese comics or foreign names, so all the artwork was flipped and the characters' names were changed, and not in clean equivalent versions of their Japanese names either. Plus, English speaking viewers never got to see the final arc of the series (Sailor Stars) in the show due to the gender bending issues surrounding the Starlight characters, they figured once again that North American audiences couldn't handle some magical transvestite action. The Sailor Stars arc of the manga was eventually released in English, but I never read them before they went out of print (I had my Japanese copies by that point so I never bothered), so I don't know if the content of that arc was censored.

Anywhoo, moving on. In 2003 in Japan, the Sailor Moon franchise got a revival in the form of a live-action tv show called Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon (previously called Pretty Soldier). The manga series was re-released at the same time into 12 condensed volumes (from the original 18), the artwork was cleaned up, new cover art was created, it was altogether a very nice release (I have the Japanese volumes sitting on my shelf now, they're quite pretty). Most people assumed that North America would never see a proper Sailor Moon translation after the English-language rights expired in 2005, but this release took me by surprise, I must say (in addition to the fact that the same company is releasing the Sailor V manga in English as well, the prequel to the Sailor Moon series).

This release is essentially identical to the Japanese re-release from 2003. The cover art is the same, volume for volume, the translation is spot-on to the original, we even get the colour pages included in the Japanese release (which manga readers know is something not guaranteed in English versions). The only thing not included in this release is the stickers that came in the Japanese first-press copies (granted, I figured we wouldn't be getting those). With that aside, anyone that was only familiar with the North American version of the series (television or print) will be a little shocked, this version of Sailor Moon is not intended for little kiddies. The translation has not been censored or dumbed down in any way, so even though this was a children's comic series in Japan (Japanese kids are given much more mature material than we give our kids of the same age), I wouldn't give it to anyone younger than 13 or so, especially given the darker content later in the series.

Not your mother's Sailor Moon, which in this case is a very good thing. True to the Japanese re-release, this is a translation that English-language fans can be proud of (plus they kept it pretty to boot). Again, not meant for little kids due to mature content (alternative lifestyles, sexual content, violence, etc.), but this'll be tame stuff to the average teenager.

Thoughts on the cover:
The overall presentation isn't as pleasing as the Japanese version (I'm just biased though, I like the look of the Japanese dust covers), but still quite nice. The cover image itself is identical to the Japanese cover, and from what I can tell, the rest of the volumes will follow suit (volume two is Sailor Mercury, 3 is Mars, 4 is Jupiter and so on). The English release cover is glossy plastic, so the colours aren't quite as soft as the Japanese matte cover.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cleopatra's Moon - Vicky Alvear Shecter

Title: Cleopatra's Moon
Author: Vicky Alvear Shecter
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 343 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: September 5, 2011
Finished: September 7, 2011

From the inside cover:
Princess of Egypt, Prisoner of Rome

Cleopatra Selene is the only daughter of the brilliant Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and General Marcus Antonius of Rome. She's grown up with jewels on her arms, servants at her feet, and all the pleasures of a palace at her command, and she only wants to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a great and powerful queen.

Then the Roman ruler Octavianus, who has always wanted Egypt's wealth, launches a war that destroys all Selene has ever known. Taken to live in Octavianus' palace in Rome, she vows to defeat him and reclaim her kingdom at all costs. Yet even as she gathers support for her return, Selene finds herself torn between two young men and two different paths to power. Will love distract her from her goal-or help her achieve her true destiny?

Epic in scope and ravishing in detail, this novel reveals the extraordinary life of a girl long hidden in history: the remarkable Cleopatra Selene.

I picked this up purely because I hardly ever see YA historical fiction based in this period of history, and definitely not on this particular subject. My husband was a history and classics major in university, as were most of my friends, so I love these types of historical fiction stories. Luckily for me, Cleopatra's Moon was a joy to read: wonderfully evocative and thought-provoking.

The story opens up in 25 BCE with Cleopatra Selene at age 16 as she grieves the death of her twin brother Alexandros Helios. The story then backtracks to Selene at age 7 in Alexandria, Egypt, where readers get a snapshot of her life at the palace with her mother, father, and brothers (Caesarion, Alexandros Helios, and Ptloemy Philadelphios). We see through conversations that Octavianus, Julius Caesar's heir apparent (but not biologically), is preparing to wage war on Egypt and eventually achieves that when Selene is 11. Overwhelmed and vulnerable, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra both commit suicide (Antonius doing this in front of Selene), and Caesarion is killed to remove his claim to succession (Caesarion is the child of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar). In a carefully balanced show of Rome's political goodwill towards its conquered countries, Octavianus takes Cleopatra's 3 remaining children back with him to Rome as prisoners of war. Living in Octavianus' compound with his sister Octavia, wife Livia and all their children, always being reminded of her family's demise and subject to constant insults about her mother, Selene vows to somehow regain control over Egypt and defy Octavianus.

Some reviewers have criticized the novel as being too slow at times, and that Selene's narration is too old and mature considering the various ages she progresses through. I didn't find the novel slow in any parts, but granted I liked all the detail of her early life in Egypt, so it might be just me. As for the narration, I think what most of these reviewers failed to realize is that Selene is looking back on the events of her early life at the age of 16/17, so of course her narration will sound like an older teenager's even though she's supposed to be 7 at the time, because she's reflecting, kind of like a memoir. Those are a few common complaints that I found kind of moot.

I love the feminist undertones woven throughout the whole novel. Selene is used to an Egyptian society that values women, and is surprised when she encounters other faiths and societies that don't (first the Jewish population in Alexandria and then Rome itself). Selene is like her mother: fiery, determined, and willing to do what she must for the good of Egypt. Although she holds onto the fact that the Goddess Isis will show her her destiny, it takes Selene the better part of the book to realize that she must make her own decisions and not base them on what she thinks the Goddess wants for her or what her mother would have done. The love triangle element in the book really isn't a huge focus like in typical YA, which was nice to see, and isn't really a triangle, since Selene makes it clear early on that she desires only one choice while she would use the other purely for political gain (I had to smile at that part). Selene is a very strong female character, and I have to commend the author for not only presenting a well-written and researched piece of historical fiction, but one that contains inherently strong female characters that she balances between historical fact and added details to flesh out their personalities.

Rarely explored subject matter for YA, amazingly well-written, incredibly well-researched, and a strong female character to boot, what more could you ask for? An excellent novel, one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. The black and gold colour scheme is beautiful (especially the fact that the gold parts are shiny in some areas), and the whole layout of the cover and the pose of the model is simple yet elegant. I also like how the model looks like Cleopatra Selene would've looked like, so yay for no whitewashing in this cover!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ruby Red - Kerstin Gier

Title: Ruby Red (Book 1 in the Edelstein Trilogy)
Author: Kerstin Gier (translated from the German by Anthea Bell)
Publisher: Henry Holt, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 322 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Science Fiction
Started: August 31, 2011
Finished: September 4, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
Gwyneth Shepherd's sophisticated, beautiful cousin Charlotte has been prepared her entire life for traveling through time. But unexpectedly, it is Gwyneth, who in the middle of class takes a sudden spin to a different era!

Gwyneth must now unearth the mystery of why her mother would lie about her birth date to ward off suspicion about her ability, brush up on her history, and work with Gideon--the time traveler from a similarly gifted family that passes the gene through its male line, and whose presence becomes, in time, less insufferable and more essential. Together, Gwyneth and Gideon journey through time to discover who, in the 18th century and in contemporary London, they can trust.

Yet another time travel book, which I'm always happy to see. Ruby Red started off pretty slow, but picked up about 100 pages in once the plot actually delved into something beyond Gwen and Charlotte.

Gwyneth's family inherited a special gene that allows certain members every few generations the ability to travel back in time (with certain restrictions). Along with a few more similar groups, the individuals who throughout the years could travel through time make up a group of 12 that all have codenames based on gemstones. When it's discovered that Gwyneth is the final person in this group of 12 (and not her cousin Charlotte as previously thought), the circle is now complete, and when that event occurs and certain conditions are fulfilled, that group will unleash a power that is yet unknown, and some people don't want that to happen and try to sabotage the time travelers. Ruby Red is essentially Gwyneth trying to uncover her past and the mystery surrounding her family, and working with Gideon to try to meet the certain conditions for the circle to be completed and running into issues along the way.

The book did start off really slow, to the point where I wasn't sure that I wanted to read on, but at about the 100 page mark, things picked up and I was much more pleased with the book after that point. A lot of other reviewers point out that Gwyneth comes off as much younger than nearly 17-years-old, which I did notice, but I chalked that up to character personality and cultural differences; this book is written by an international author, and teenagers in Europe do act differently than those in North America. The thing that kind of irked me is that, at least in this book, the time traveling is more of a plot device to account for the whole "blood in the chronograph" part of the plot and there's nothing really substantial that comes from Gwyneth and Gideon time traveling other than dressing up in pretty costumes and going to a certain time for a set number of hours purely to avoid random, spastic time traveling. I do love the gemstone theme woven throughout the series, and it includes something else I love: family trees and diagrams! The series shows a lot of promise by the end of Ruby Red, so I'll definitely be picking up Sapphire Blue when it comes out next year.

Starts off slow, but picks up eventually and results in a nice start to what is hopefully a great trilogy, I will definitely be keeping my eye out on this one.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. The curlycues with the ruby gemstones and Gwyneth's picture at the top make this whole cover a wonderful piece of eye candy, and the shade of red is quite nice too. Hopefully we'll get some continuity in the covers for Sapphire Blue (book 2) and Emerald Green (book 3).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Drink, Slay, Love - Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Drink, Slay, Love
Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster), September 13, 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 11, 2011
Finished: August 18, 2011

From Goodreads.com:
Pearl is a sixteen-year-old vampire... fond of blood, allergic to sunlight, and mostly evil... until the night a sparkly unicorn stabs her through the heart with his horn. Oops.

Her family thinks she was attacked by a vampire hunter (because, obviously, unicorns don't exist), and they're shocked she survived. They're even more shocked when Pearl discovers she can now withstand the sun. But they quickly find a way to make use of her new talent. The Vampire King of New England has chosen Pearl's family to host his feast. If Pearl enrolls in high school, she can make lots of human friends and lure them to the King's feast -- as the entrees.

The only problem? Pearl's starting to feel the twinges of a conscience. How can she serve up her new friends—especially the cute guy who makes her fangs ache—to be slaughtered? Then again, she's definitely dead if she lets down her family. What's a sunlight-loving vamp to do?

Sarah Beth Durst is one of my favourite YA authors. I've read her more recent books Ice and Enchanted Ivy (Ice which I liked with some reservations and Enchanted Ivy I just loved), and knew she was one of those authors that I would just read anything they wrote. When I found out what her new book was about, I was kind of hesitant, mainly because it was a vampire story, and vampire stories automatically seem cliched to me now (thank you Twilight). However; Drink, Slay, Love pleasantly surprised me in a few areas and reassured me that it was not your average YA vampire book.

Pearl comes from a prominent vampire family who's hosting a once-every-hundred-year feast for the Vampire King of New England, which to say the least is a big deal. At the same time, Pearl is being stalked and gets staked by a unicorn...yup, a unicorn. After surviving said attempted murder by the unicorn, Pearl discovers that she can walk around in daylight without being burned to a crisp. In response, her family assigns her the task of finding a food source for the feast...requiring her to attend human high school, which makes Pearl begin to see humans as more than just a food source. Drink, Slay, Love portrays vampires in a more traditional sense: gritty, cruel, bloodthirsty (forgive the bad pun); and Pearl only deviates from this when she develops a conscience. This portrayal was refreshing compared to the sparkly, almost too-human way that vampires are portrayed in YA novels today, I grew up with vampires being frightening, and I expect vampire characters to invoke fear, or at least be bad-ass, not sparkle like cheap glitter makeup. Aside from the obvious digs at Twilight in the book and the traditional portrayal of vampire characters, I also liked that although it did include a romance, the supernatural character was female and the romantic interest (Evan) was human. So often I find the female characters are put in a passive role in supernatural romances by being the human in the relationship, but Pearl is the opposite: spunky and hard-edged with a chip on her shoulder, but still vulnerable in her own way (just not physically so) due to her changing mental perspective on humans. I also love how it shows Pearl transitioning to the world of high school, it's like watching a documentary about an anthropologist studying indigenous peoples in some remote land, that's how Pearl analyzes and adjusts to the human world.

One downside of the book for me was its pacing. Things dragged on and didn't happen nearly fast enough for me, although they did pick up, but not until past the midpoint. I had real issues sustaining my reading for this reason, but granted I have pregnancy-induced brain-drain, so it could be just me.

Not my favourite book by this author, but definitely worth the read. It's a unique vampire novel, which is hard to pull off in YA these days, which I think alone makes it worth reading.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. The fact that the face is hidden so you can only see the lips with blood-red lipstick, and the blood in the red bottle with the straw is a nice touch.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Unwanteds - Lisa McMann

Title: The Unwanteds
Author: Lisa McMann
Publisher: Aladdin (Simon & Schuster), August 30, 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Children's Dystopian Fiction/Fantasy
Started: August 6, 2011
Finished: August 10, 2011

From the publisher's website:
Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their deaths.

Thirteen-year-old Alex tries his hardest to be stoic when his fate is announced as Unwanted, even while leaving behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted. Upon arrival at the destination where he expected to be eliminated, however, Alex discovers a stunning secret--behind the mirage of the "death farm" there is instead a place called Artime.

In Artime, each child is taught to cultivate their creative abilities and learn how to use them magically, weaving spells through paintbrushes and musical instruments. Everything Alex has ever known changes before his eyes, and it's a wondrous transformation.

But it's a rare, unique occurence for twins to be separated between Wanted and Unwanted, and as Alex and Aaron's bond stretches across their separation, a threat arises for the survival of Artime that will pit brother against brother in an ultimate, magical battle.

I love dystopian stories, and finding ones written for middle grade readers are harder to come by (as opposed to YA), so I was happy to preview this title. Unfortunately, the book didn't meet the expectations I had for it, though it was still a decent little read.

The book is being marketed as a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and granted, on the surface this seems quite appropriate. Quill is a dystopian world where children are divided into three categories at the age of thirteen: Wanted, Necessary, and Unwanted. The Wanteds are skilled in math, science, engineering etc. and are destined for university and spots in the government or military (cutely called the Quillitary). Necessaries are just that: necessary workers that make up the majority of the population. The Unwanteds are those that excel in creative arts: writing, drama, music, dance, and visual arts...they are sentenced to death. Children are sorted into said categories based on their skills and "infractions" they commit (merely drawing in the sand with a stick will doom a child to an Unwanted fate). Alex has potential as an artist and is therefore sentenced to die with all the rest of the year's Unwanteds, but soon discovers that the "death farm" is really an alternate dimension/world called Artime, where the Unwanteds are rescued each year to hone their talents and learn to use magic (ergo the Harry Potter reference). That's where the references end sadly.

The book seemed rather rushed to me in some areas. I felt that there wasn't enough world-building established before rushing into the main plot, which was a shame because the premise of Quill had lots of potential (it was amazingly brutal and cruel, which I love to see in my dystopian worlds) and I would've loved it if the author delved into it more. Once the kids get to Artime they're thrown right into their creative lessons and magical training and even that passes by comparatively quickly, I would've loved to get more detail about the spells, the community of Artime itself, the creatures, and the arts lessons (to the kind of detail that the Harry Potter books delve into). The spells especially were extremely creative (turning paper clips into lethal scatterclips, enchanting origami dragons to actually attack and breathe fire), and I was dying to get more detail on other spells, but was left hanging. I think this rushed feeling could be contributed to the fact that this is a middle grade novel (and therefore things are sped up to accommodate younger readers with shorter attention spans that need things moving at a quick pace) and not the first in a series by the looks of things, so it could be excused thusly, but I think this could've benefitted from being either longer with more detail in the appropriate areas, or as a series.

There were a couple of areas in the book I felt could've been delved a bit deeper, but got what I thought was a "cop-out" resolution to these areas. First off, the idea that creative children are punished by death in an authoritarian dystopian world is awesome, but rather than explain to readers that creative people in all disciplines question the status quo and are a threat to governments that demand blind obedience, the author instead sticks to the idea that the label of "creative" only applies to the arts, and that maths and sciences are exempt from this designation. I hate this idea personally, I think it does a disservice to kids to perpetuate that you can only be "creative" if you write stories or draw pictures, I've seen creative minds in science classrooms as well as in math, and I always tell kids that creative means that you produce or contribute something by thinking outside the box no matter what subject you're working in. I think the whole "creativity only belongs to the arts" is a major cop-out, and would've preferred to have seen the idea explained as I have above, I don't think such a concept is something that middle grade readers couldn't understand. Another thing that bothered me was the point in the plot where Mr. Today and Alex's teachers hold back his magical warrior training because they think he'll use it to reunite with Aaron. They've got the kids under surveillance and see that the lack of magical warrior training is making Alex miserable and therefore thinking more about his twin than if he had been allowed to do his training with the others, which makes no sense if you think about it, so I think it was just put in unnecessarily to create conflict in the plot, which was just dumb in my opinion, if you're going to create conflict, do it in a way that's realistic. Last thing in this area...the whole idea of an actual war with Quill and Artime could've been prevented in a very simple way (won't say more for fear of spoilers), but it's so stupidly simple, you'll want to smack the characters upside the head for not doing it in the first place, which just frustrated me as a reader, I felt the whole battle and everything was just completely pointless.

Also, although the characters did have distinct personalities I would've liked to see them developed a little more, especially the girls Meghan and Lani (Alex and Samheed I felt had some pretty decent development throughout the book). The secondary characters like the adults and the creatures (I loved Simber) were pretty interesting as well, another area that could've been better explored if this had been a series instead of a one-shot.

I wanted to like this, I really did, and it has a lot of potential in some areas: the premise, the spells, the arts lessons, the magic of Artime itself, and the characters. However, the feeling of being rushed through what good parts there were and being dragged through a climactic battle that didn't need to happen in the first place really affected my enjoyment of the book (again, perhaps my expectations were a bit too high). Also that whole "creativity only belongs in the arts" idea really bugged me, but that irked the teacher in me, so that might not bother all readers. It's a decent middle-grade novel, but I think there are definitely better ones out there that don't dumb down things for kids and assume that middle grade readers can indeed have some sophisticated stuff in their books.

Thoughts on the cover:
I do like the cover, I think it's nice and dynamic, a perfect fit for a middle grade novel. I like how Simber is the main focus of the cover, with the kids at the bottom as well as their origami dragon spells (I loved those!).